The Consequences of Italian Intervention in the Spanish Civil War

Brian R. Sullivan
Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. Washington, USA.


This text was presented by the author during the seminary titled «La Guerra Civil en su contexto europeo» [The Spanish Civil War in its European context], directed by Geoffrey Parker at the Universidad Menéndez Pelayo, Santander (Spain) in 1992. Brian Sullivan also has published these other works: «Fascist Italy´s Military Involvement in the Spanish Civil War», Journal of Military History, 59 (1995); «The Italian Armed Forces, 1918-1940», in Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett (eds.), Military Efectiveness. The Interwar Period (London, 1988); and «The Impatient Cat: Assessments of Military Power in Fascist Italy, 1936-1940», in Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett (eds.), Calculations. Net Assessment and the Coming of world War II, (New York, 1992).


Italian participation in the Spanish conflict from July 1936 and March 1939 had three major consequences:

First. Italian aid to the Nationalists played a major role in their victory — possibly the decisive role. Furthermore, the high level of Italian assistance to the Nationalists was crucial in bringing the downfall of the Second Republic prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. This prevented any rescue of the Republic by the French, as might have occurred lad it survived until September 1939.

Second. The diplomatic and political consequences of Italian involvement in the war gravely hindered any post-Ethiopian War reconstruction of the anti-German Stresa Front. In particular, Italian and French aid to opposite sides in the Civil War made a rapprochement between Rome and Paris virtually impossible. Instead, the de facto Mussolini-Hitler alliance  in support of the Nationalists led directly to the formation of the Rome-Berlin Axis in October 1936 and contributed significantly to the May 1939 Italian-German military alliance known as the Pact of Steel. In turn, the Pact of Steel gave Hitler the confidence to attack Poland in September 1939, initiating the outbreak of World War II.

Third. The Italian Army and Air Force were significantly drained by their heavy material support to the Nationalist and the involvement of significant Italian ground and air units in the Civil War. To a lesser degree, the Italian Navy also suffered from its participation in the conflict. The resultant military weaknesses were a major factor in persuading Mussolini  to proclaim Italian “non-belligerence” in September 1939. More significantly, after the defeat of France persuaded Mussolini to intervene in the European conflict in June 1940, the continuing debilities of the Italian forces due to their participation in the Spanish war contributed to the disasters suffered by Italian arms in 1940-41.

Let us consider each of these three results of Italian intervention in the war, in turn, and then conclude by considering the larger questions raised by the story.


1. Italian Contributions to the Nationalist victory

Before estimating the overall influence of Italian participation on the outcome of the war, we can began shaping our final estimate by reviewing the major military successes in which the Italians participated. What follows is not a list of each campaign or battle in which the Italians fought but those which made a significant addition to Nationalist victories.

July-November 1936. The nine Italian bombers that reached Spanish Morocco in late July and the twenty-seven Italian fighters that arrived about two weeks later, along with their crews and support units, gave the Nationalists significant help in gaining control over the Strait of Gibraltar and in carrying out successful sea and air ferrying operations. As a result, by late August, the Nationalists were able to consolidate their territorial enclaves in the south and link that area with the territory they had seized in central and northern Spain. The arrival of more Italian aircraft in September (soon organized in an autonomous command, the Aviazione Legionaria) helped grant the Nationalists air superiority almost everywhere until mid-November and helped them to gain control over even more territory in the autumn of 1936. Also important for Nationalist success in that fighting were the tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft gun, crew-served weapons, motor vehicles and ammunition that arrived from Italy in the first four months of the war. [1]

5-14 February 1937. While the Italians were organizing the Corpo Truppe Volontarie (C.T.V. — a 50,000-man force of four divisions, two mixed Italian-Spanish brigades, two infantry groups (reinforced infantry regiments) and one light tank battalion, plus combat support and service units), the first Italian division in Spain, assisted by Italian naval land air units, took part in the capture of Málaga. As a result, the Republican salient that had formed a potential threat to Cádiz was eliminated and the Nationalists gained a major port within the Mediterranean. Italian ability to ship material assistance to the Nationalists was greatly facilitated. [2]

2 March-August 1937. Following its humiliation in the so-called Battle of Guadalajara, 8-23 March, the C.T.V. reorganized and prepared for an opportunity to redeem the reputation of Italian arms. This arose toward the end of the Northern Campaign. meanwhile, smaller Italian ground units took part in the fighting in March, April and May. Then, the C.T.V. was concentrated, broke through the Basque defenses and captured Santander in the second half of August. Nationalist observers disparaged the Italian victory, pointing out the weakness of their opposition. Nonetheless, the Italians contributed nearly one-third of the Nationalist ground forces in the campaign and the heavy employment of Italian artillery and Aviazione Legionaria units proved crucial in obtaining the Nationalist victory. The conquest of the northern region gave the Nationalists significant industrial and mining assets, large numbers of prisoners and shortened their overall front, allowing a greater concentration of force, thereafter. [3]

6  August-4 September 1937. On, the  basis of  faulty intelligence, Franco believed that massive Soviet arms shipments were about to be sent to the Republic through the Mediterranean. In early August, the Spanish leader asked Mussolini to interdict these. The Duce agreed but extended the targets to all shipping in the Mediterranean bound for the Republic. The result was the so-called "Pirate Submarine" campaign, in which Italian aircraft and surface warships also participated. Despite the false premises of Franco's plea for assistance, Italian aeronaval operations resulted in the sinking of twelve merchant ships and forced  the Soviets permanently to abandon the Mediterranean supply route. Soviet aid to the Republic dropped considerably, as a result. [4]

15 December 1937-20 February 1938. Following the successful conclusion of the Northern Campaign, Franco planned a new offensive to capture Madrid. But the Republican's gained intelligence of Nationalist plans and launched a spoiling attack against the Teruel salient in mid-December. Mussolini refused to comment the infantry of the C.T.V. to Franco's defensive operations. But he allowed the Italian artillery and the Aviazione Legionaria to take full part in the initial battle and in the subsequent Nationalist counteroffensive. Casualties were heavy and approximately equal on both sides. But Italian air and artillery support can be credited with gaining Franco his hard-won victory. [5]

December 1937-July 1938. Operating from its bases on Majorca, the Aviazione Legionaria carried out an intense series of air strikes against Republican Mediterranean shipping, coastal traffic and ports, especially Barcelona. Combined with these attacks was a terror bombing assault on Barcelona in March. While the raids on Barcelona did not lead to the psychological collapse for which Mussolini hoped, the seven-month air campaign inflicted serious damage and helped disrupt the Teruel Offensive, as well as Republican defensive efforts during the Aragón Offensive. [6]

9 March-l9 April 1938. Franco launched an offensive in Aragón soon after the end of his counteroffensive at Teruel. He hoped to take advantage of the heavy Republican losses and to cut Republican territory in two, by a drive across central Spain to the Mediterranean. The three divisions of the C.T.V. formed the center of the Nationalist offensive. Despite fierce Republican resistance, the Nationalists reached the sea in mid-April. The C.T.V. advanced to Tortosa on the Ebro four days later, effectively isolating Catalonia from the remainder of the Republic. The C.T.V. and Italian aviation had given Franco considerable assistance in winning his greatest victory in the war so far. [7]

25 July-16 November 1938. Partly to halt a successful Nationalist-C.T.V. offensive against Valencia begun on 13 July and partly to rejoin the two halves of their territory, the Republicans crossed the Ebro in late July, in their largest offensive of the war. As at Teruel, Italian infantry took no part in the battle. C.T.V. artillery and Italian warplanes offered Franco's forces decisive aid in stopping the Republican drive and eventually making a successful counterattack. Losses on both sides were heavy but Republican morale suffered a heavy blow and Axis resupply made good Nationalist wastage of materiel. [8]

23 December 1938-10 February 1939. After reorganization into one Italian and three Spanish divisions (with Italian cadre), plus a tank-artillery-engineer group, the C.T.V. and the Aviazione Legionaria spearheaded the Nationalist offensive into Catalonia. Italian casualties in the offensive were particularly heavy. But the C.T.V. captured Barcelona in late January and, despite concerns about last-minute French intervention, the Nationalists overran all Catalonia by mid-February. Those Republicans not killed or captured fled into France. Although hardly clear at the time, the Nationalists and their Italian allies had dealt the Republic a blow leading to its death a month later. [9]

With the possible exception of Italian assistance to the Nationalists in July-November 1936, no one of the operations described above can be considered decisive by itself. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine a final Nationalist victory without Italian participation in all these campaigns. In that regard, the total Italian air effort deserves emphasis: 12,700 tons of bombs dropped in 5300 bombing raids and 150 ground support attacks; 225 ships sunk or damaged; a claimed 943 enemy aircraft downed or destroyed on the ground (for a probable but still impressive actual total of about 500 “kills”), in return for the loss of 86 Italian warplanes. [10]

Furthermore, it seems likely that the Republic would have endured until September 1939 without the contribution of the C.T.V. and the Aviazione Legionaria to the Nationalist war effort. Indeed, as Hugh Thomas argues, the Republic need not have survived even that long for its rescue by the Allies but only until Hitler´s seizure of Czecho-Slovakia in mid-March. Thereafter, and assuredly by September 3, 1939, the best outcome the Nationalists could have expected from the war would have been a negotiated settlement. [11]

Perhaps even more important a factor in the Nationalist victory than the aid of the Italian armed forces in combat was the material assistance provided by Mussolini. It is difficult to imagine a Nationalist victory without the vast array of arms and equipment provided by Italy. For the C.T.V., Aviazione Legionaria and Franco´s army this included 1900 artillery pieces (including 450 tubes of 105mm or larger), 1500 mortars, 3500 machine guns, 5200 automatic rifles, 240,000 rifles, 175 tanks and armored cars, 7600 motor vehicles, 500,000 sets of uniforms and 7.6 million artillery shells. Almost as impressive were the bombers, seaplanes, transports and reconnaissance planes and 1400 aircraft engines that the Italians employed themselves or transferred to the Nationalist airforce. (Prior to March 1939, the Italians gave about 390 aircraft directly to the Nationalists, while operating about 370 themselves in Spain.) In addition, the Nationalist navy received four destroyers, two submarines and 4 motor torpedo boats from the Italians. All of this was consumed, worn out or left behind in Spain by the Italians. [12]

Perhaps more significant in terms of material aid was the amount of Italian assistance to the Nationalists during the first seven months of the war, when the issue was most in doubt. Arms and equipment sent to Spain during the period 27 July 1936-18 February 1937 included: 542 artillery pieces, 756 mortars, 3422 machine guns, 105,000 rifles, 81 tanks, 3783 motor vehicles, 1.3 million artillery shells and 248 aircraft. By mid-February, there were about 50,000 Italian troops in Spain, making up about one-quarter of Nationalist ground forces. [13]

Finally, the Italians greatly assisted the Nationalists by providing extensive diplomatic, intelligence, and propaganda support. While these are intangible factors and thus impossible to quantify, the Italians can be credited with helping to mobilize public opinion in support of the Nationalist cause in Europe and the Americas, to prevent major foreign intervention on the Republican side, to limit the degree of foreign assistance to the Republic, to avoid a negotiated settlement that might have undermined the Nationalist cause and to keep the Nationalists well informed about their enemies, capabilities and intentions. Italian Army intelligence and its surrogates also carried out a successful campaign of assassination and sabotage against Republican targets, particularly in France. [14]


2. Diplomatic and Political Consequences

Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War contributed more than any other factor to the development of the Axis and the formation of the Italian-German alliance, as well as to the crucial timing of those events. True, British and French reaction to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia had already undermined the Stresa Front. Furthermore, Mussolini's hostility to the West preceded the Ethiopian War and would probably have resulted in an Italian alliance with Nazi Germany against the democracies in any case. However, the relative speed with which Mussolini abandoned the defense of Austrian independence, accepted the destruction of Czechoslovakia and agreed to the offensive-defensive alliance with Germany, known as the Pact of Steel, were direct results of the Spanish Civil War. [15]

Each of these momentous steps toward the outbreak of the Second World War precipitated the next. Thus, had the Anschluss been delayed, it seems likely that the other events would have been as well. While Hitler likely would have gone on to destroy Czechoslovakia (possibly even before an Anschluss), then to form a military alliance with Mussolini and a political alliance with Stalin, and finally, to initiate World War II by an attack on Poland, such a sequence could very well have been prolonged by four to six years. In other words, given the pivotal roles played by Mussolini and Ciano in unwittingly positioning Hitler to invade Poland in September 1939 and the influence of the Spanish Civil War on those Italian actions, Italian absence from the Spanish war might have delayed the outbreak of the larger conflict until 1943-45. Hitler himself was thinking in terms of such a schedule as late as November 1937. While impossible to calculate with any certainty, such a chronology would probably have granted the Western democracies a far better military posture than they actually enjoyed in 1939-40. [16]

The deterioration in Italian-French relations occurred as each country began supporting the opposing sides in the civil war in July 1936. French Premier Lèon Blum already loathed Mussolini when he came to office in the summer of 1936. Mussolini reciprocated these feelings. Nonetheless, Blum sincerely wanted a general understanding with Italy, in order to revive the anti-German Italian-French understandings of 1935. Diplomatic discussions between October 1936 and January 1937 made the positions of the two sides clear. Mussolini warned that he would move closer to Hitler unless the French ceased all aid to the Republic and accepted a Nationalist victory. But Mussolini offered his guarantees that a Nationalist Spain would maintain good relations with France. In addition, he pointed out that an Italian-French would allow him to continue to defend Austrian independence.

The French government refused Mussolini´s offers. In response, Mussolini sent his expeditionary corps to Spain. Thereafter, the continued presence of the C.T.V. in Spain and, especially, the "Pirate Submarine" campaign of August-September 1937 progressively diminished the chances for an understanding between Italy and France. In fact, by the end of 1937 both the Italians and the Germans considered an eventual war between Italy and France to be virtually inevitable. [17]

During the same period, Italian-German collaboration in aiding the Nationalists led to the proclamation of the Axis and created the preconditions for Mussolini´s agreement to the Anschluss. By early 1937, the Italians and Germans were de facto allies in Spain. By the time Mussolini returned from his first visit to Germany in September, he had been dazzled with the spectacle of German might and sorely tempted by Hitler´s offer of a partnership to rule Europe. But there still remained the possibility of an Italian-British agreement to balance the developing ties between Rome and Berlin and to assist Mussolini to postpone the Anschluss. [18]

The eight months between July 1937 and March 1938 were the most important period of the Spanish Civil War in terms of the alignment of Italy with Germany. After he came to office as British Prime minister in May, Neville Chamberlain undertook a major effort to restore Italian-British relations and prevent the Axis from developing into an actual anti-Western alliance. In July, Chamberlain and Mussolini began secret talks by means of intermediaries. Within weeks, the basis of an agreement had been worked out.

Mussolini would withdraw his forces from Spain. Chamberlain would ensure formal British recognition of the Italian annexation of Ethiopia and establish the preconditions for major loans by the City for the development of Italian East Africa. By implication, Mussolini would reposition Italy midway between Britain and Germany and maintain his protection of Austrian independence. Mussolini insisted, however, that his forces must first win a victory in Spain to avenge their humiliation at Guadalajara. Chamberlain acquiesced. This was to be accomplished by the C.T.V. capture of Santander in August 1937. Finally, Mussolini wished to visit Germany, as had already been scheduled for late September, before announcing the comprehensive agreements. [19]

These plans were upset by the "Pirate Submarine" campaign, particularly the attack by an Italian submarine on a British destroyer on August 31 and by the tensions attendant to the Nyon Conference in mid-September. By the time that Chamberlain persuaded Mussolini to renew their secret contacts in mid-October, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden had decided these negotiations were a mistake. Eden's opposition to Mediterranean appeasement, the signature of the anti-Comintern pact in November (viewed by Chamberlain as actually aimed against Britain) and Italy's withdrawal from the League of Nations in December prevented any further progress in the discussions. Only in mid-January did Chamberlain succeed in regaining both his cabinet and Mussolini´s enthusiasm for an agreement. Growing German pressure on Austria had been the key.

The secret contacts resumed in mid-February, followed by Eden´s resignation in protest a few days later. However, six months had been lost. As the Italian-British negotiations drew toward a conclusion, Hitler´s forces invaded Austria in March. Mussolini´s military commitments in Spain, and his consequent diplomatic isolation, had left him too weak to oppose the German move.

The German annexation of Austria and the creation of a common German-Italian border transformed the European situation greatly in Hitler´s favor. The Italian-British agreements, commonly known as the “Easter Accords” were signed on April 16, 1938. But their contents were quite different from what Chamberlain had envisioned the previous spring. In return for British recognition of his empire, Mussolini agreed to withdraw his forces from Spain but only after a Nationalist victory. He also agreed to gradually reduce the Italian garrison in Libya and to end anti-British propaganda broadcasts to the Arabs. Both parties would respect the status quo in the Mediterranean and Red Seas. But the Anschluss and Chamberlain´s willingness to accept an Italian presence in Spain until total victory had changed the value of the Easter Accords in Mussolini´s mind. Rather than representing a major step away from the Axis, the agreements involved only a tactical move on Mussolini´s part. German strength and British weakness had both been made manifest to him. [20]

At the Munich conference that September, Mussolini agreed to withdraw 10,000 Italian troops from Spain and did so by the middle of October. In return, Chamberlain implemented the Easter Accords in November by recognizing Ethiopia as Italian. However, over the following months, Mussolini sent about 10,000 fresh troops to Spain. These participated in the campaign that conquered Catalonia in December 1938-February 1939. Nonetheless, Chamberlain visited Rome in January 1939 and returned to London convinced that Mussolini could be trusted. In return, Mussolini expressed contempt for the British. In mid-March, the Germans seized Bohemia, angering Mussolini but also frightening him. He decided to redress the balance by responding in kind. No sooner had the Spanish Republic succumbed that March than Mussolini ordered the invasion of Albania in April. This was a clear violation of the status quo clause of the Easter Accords. one month later, Mussolini ordered his foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano, to agree to the signature of the Pact of Steel. [21]

Later in May, Ciano arrived in Berlin for the formal signature of the alliance. The following day, May 23, Hitler announced to his generals his decision “to attack Poland at the first suitable opportunity”. He ordered this decision to be kept secret from the Italians. One hundred days afterwards, the Germans invaded Poland and began the Second World War. [22]


3. The Influence of Mussolini's Intervention in the Spanish Civil War on the Italian Armed Forces

In his otherwise excellent Italian Intervention in the Spanish Civil War, John Coverdale argues that Mussolini´s aid to the Nationalists did not weaken Italy militarily. Rather, he insists that only antiquated Italian arms and equipment were sent to Spain, which would have been of little use in the Second World War. Instead, Coverdale faults the Italian military for failing to learn the lessons offered by its participation in the Spanish war. Stanley Payne echoes these conclusions. The two historians are completely wrong on both counts. [23]

When World War II began in September 1939, Italian Army possessed only ten effective divisions, the Italian Air Force numbered only 850 modern and airworthy planes. These weaknesses were largely the results of the drain on the military caused by the Ethiopian War, followed within months by Italian involvement in the Spanish Civil War.

The realization of these facts by Mussolini, however reluctant he was to admit them, prevented his entry into the war and convinced him that he could  intervene no earlier than the spring of 1941. The German victories in May 1940 and strenuous efforts by the Italian Army and Air Force to improve their readiness for war persuaded Mussolini to declare war on France and Britain on June 10, 1940. By then, the Italian Army consisted of nineteen divisions at full strength and thirty-four incomplete but still efficient divisions. The Air Force had grown to 2500 aircraft, of which 1600 were reasonably modern. [24]

The pitiful state of the Italian Army and Air Force can be largely (although not exclusively) traced to the consequences of Mussolini´s intervention in Spain. Figures help to tell the story. The Italian Army equipment sent to Spain in 1936-39 was not dispatched in precise division-sized packages. Thus, enough light mortars for twelve model 1940 infantry divisions were delivered to Spain, while the machine guns shipped could have equipped forty-four such divisions. With these considerations in mind, it can be stated with reasonable accuracy that had the Italian Army not lost the arms and supplies that it did to the Spanish Civil War, it would have had at least thirty fully-equipped infantry divisions in September 1939 (triple the actual number) and about fifty infantry divisions at full strength in June 1940 (two-and-one-half times the number that it did). Perhaps more significant, the arms, ammunition and vehicles consumed in Spain were sufficient to equip fully four or five motorized divisions of the type suitable for mobile operations in North Africa. [25]

True, much of these weapons and equipment were obsolete by the German or British standards of 1940-41. But some were quite modern, such as the mortars and motor vehicles. More to the point, the arms sent to Spain in 1936-39 remained the standard for the Italian Army throughout the Second World War. In particular, the Italians fought World War II largely with the artillery they had manufactured in 1915-18 or captured from the Austrians in 1918. They left hundreds of such howitzers and guns in Spain. Prior to its requisition of civilian vehicles, the Italian Army possessed only 36,000 vehicles in the spring of 1940. Throughout the summer of that year, Graziani begged in vain for 5200 vehicles to fully motorize the nine divisions with which he intended to invade Egypt. The 7600 trucks, motorcycles and tractors consumed by the Spanish war would have greatly improved the mobility of the Italian Army in the second half of 1940. [26]

In general, involvement in the Spanish Civil War had the same effect on the Italian Air Force. The majority of the Italian aircraft sent to Spain were some 500 FIAT CR 32 biplane fighters. These aircraft were obsolete even by Italian standards in 1940. However, the Italian Air Force still possessed 300 operational CR 32s in late 1939 and kept the production line for such fighters open until late 1940. They remained useful for ground attack missions in Europe and North Africa and served as fighters in East Africa in 1940-41. The hundreds of CR 32s consumed by the Spanish war would have proved quite useful for the Italians in World War II, particularly in the Balkans and Africa. [27]

On the other hand, had Spanish requirements not kept the CR 32 in production, FIAT could have shut down those assembly lines and shifted manufacturing resources to more modern aircraft production. And modern aircraft, such as FIAT G 50 fighters and Savoia Marchetti SM 79 and Caproni Ca 310 bombers, were also lost to the Italian Air Force as a result of involvement in Spain. Again, while it is difficult to offer precise figures, the Italian Air Force would probably have had twice its combat ready aircraft in September 1939 and fifty percent more in June 1940 had it not participated in the Spanish war.

Another way to estimate the cost of involvement in the civil war to the Italian armed forces is to consider Italian monetary expenditures. While it remains unclear exactly how much the war cost Italy, figures of between 7.9 and 8.7 billion lire appear to be reasonable estimates. During the period mid-1936 to mid-1939, total Italian military spending totaled 43.8 billion lire, of which 21.5 billion was the army´s share. Therefore, the Spanish Civil War seems to have consumed about eighteen to twenty percent of the armed forces budgets in that period. Extrapolating from figures for 1938-39, the Italian Army seems to have contributed the most heavily, perhaps some thirty percent of its budgets in the 1936-39 period. Obviously, the Spanish war cost the Italian Navy relatively little, while the air force contributed significantly more, although not so heavily as the army. Given these figures, the disruption of training and the drain on fuel, spare parts, ammunition and so forth can be well imagined. [28]

These figures also help explain why the Italians did not apply the military lessons of the Spanish Civil War. Simply put, many higher ranking Italian officers who served in Spain realized that their equipment, training and doctrine were obsolete and in great need of modernization. What made it impossible to apply these lessons was lack of money, the inflexibility of the armed forces high commands and the resistance of the Italian arms industry to the expensive process of redesign and retooling. [29]

This is not to argue that the Italians who fought in the Spanish war learned every possible lesson. Italian fighter pilots remained largely convinced of the superiority of slower but more maneuverable biplanes over the new all-metal monowing fighters. Italian submarine commanders held to their cautious tactics of stationary submerged ambush. The air force leadership remained uncertain if the theories of Douhet had been vindicated or if the tactical aviation concepts of Amedeo Mecozzi had been proved superior. However, the fundamental lessons of the ground war the need for combined arms maneuver warfare, the requirements for vastly improved tanks, for tracked cross country vehicles of all kinds, for mobile and modern artillery, for effective radio equipment, for air support of mechanized operations — were understood and disseminated in 1939-40. The problem was that the Italian Army lacked the financial resources to apply these lessons, the vast mobilization of 1939-40 overwhelmed the training organization and the Italian armaments industry resisted the heavy cost of supplying the necessary new arms and equipment. Finally, given the archaic and unresponsive nature of the Italian industrial system, insufficient time was available to manufacture the new arms in quantity, once that necessity had become clear. Less than fifteen months after the end of the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini plunged Italy into the Second World War. [30]


4. Conclusions

Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War had contradictory consequences. On the one hand, it drove Mussolini toward a commitment to Hitler sooner and more firmly than would otherwise have been the case. As a result, Hitler gained the confidence and ability to seize Austria and Czecho-Slovakia and to attack Poland on an accelerated schedule. Hitler´s initiation of World War II in the summer of 1939 placed Germany in a more favorable military situation than it would have been had the war begun a year earlier or, most probably, had it begun three to five years later, as Hitler and Mussolini had previously envisioned. It is hard to imagine that the Germans would have achieved the extraordinary successes of April-June 1940 had the Second World War begun in September 1938 or the spring of 1943. [31]

Yet, participation in the Spanish Civil War so drained the Italian Army and Air Force that they were in a very weakened state when Mussolini intervened in the war in June 1940. As a result, the Italians were far less ready than they would have been otherwise to take advantage of the military opportunities presented to them in the second half of 1940. In particular, the weapons and equipment consumed in Spain would have been of the greatest assistance to Graziani for his invasion of Egypt and to the Duke of Aosta for both the invasion of the Sudan and the defense of Italian East Africa. [32]

Of course, the explanation for Italian military failures in 1940-41 encompasses far more than lack of supplies, arms and equipment. The Italian military also suffered from grave weaknesses of a political, intellectual and psychological nature. No one can prove that had the Italians never intervened in the Spanish war they would have swept the British out of Egypt, overrun the Sudan, seized the Suez Canal and invaded the Middle East in late 1940- early 1941. Nonetheless, there is that possibility.

Perhaps more to the point are other questions. To what extent did the defeats inflicted on the Italians in the period October 1940-March 1941 sustain British morale and determination during those difficult months? How crucial were the British and Greek victories of the period in persuading the American Congress and President Roosevelt to continue to supply the British with Lend Lease aid at the level actually sent? These questions present problems that can never be settled by standard historical methods. But in whatever vague answers can be offered to these imponderables, the consequences of Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War hold a central place.


Intervention cost:


jul. 1936 – feb. 1937

jul. 1936 – mar. 1939




Guns ≥ 105 mm









Light machineguns






Tanks & armored vehicles



Trucks & cars






Artillery rounds



Planes motors



Franquist planes


≈ 390

Italian planes


≈ 370

Total of planes dispatched



Ships: destroyers



Ships: submarines



Ships: torpedo boats





  1. Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, third edition (New York, 1986), pp. 352, 370-1, 418-9; George Hills, Franco (New York, 1967), pp. 246-7, 251-2, 264-5; Jesús Salas Larrazábal, Air War Over Spain (London, 1969), p. 57: John Coverdale, Italian Intervention in the Spanish Civil War (Princeton, 1975) , pp. 87, 107-10, 115; National Archives, microfilm series T586 [hereafter NA, followed by microfilm series], reel 1062, frames 062956-65; Francesco Belforte, La guerra civile in Spagna, 4 vols. (Milan, 19-38-39), vol. III, pp. 31-5, 62-7; José Luis Alcofar Nassaes, C.T.V. Los legionarios italianos en la guerra civil española 1936-1939 (Barcelona, 1972), pp. 29, 42-8.
  2. Virgilio Ilari and Antonio Sema, Marte in orbace. Guerra, esercito e milizia nella concezione fascista a della nazione (Ancona, 1988), pp. 264-7; Coverdale, Italian intervention, pp. 170-9; NA T586, reel 1062, frames 062973-3000; Belforte, La guerra civile, pp. 87-101; José Manuel Martínez Bande, La campaña de Andalucía (Madrid, 1969), pp 160-6; Luca dei Sabelli, «Nell´anniversario di Malaga», Nuova Antologia, 16 Feb. 1938.
  3. Martínez Bande, El final del frente norte (Madrid, 1972); Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, pp. 717-22, 733; Coverdale, Italian intervention, pp. 282-90; Salas Larrazábal, Air War, 134-71.
  4. Alcofar Nassaes, La marina italiana en la guerra de España (Barcelona, 1975), pp. 198-221; Willard C. Frank, «Naval Operations in tte Spanish Civil War», Naval War College Review, 23, 1984, pp. 42-5; D.C. Watt, «Soviet Military Aid to the Spanish Republic in the Civil War 1936-1938», The Slavonic and Eastern European Review, June 1960, p. 538; Thomas, The Spaanish Civil War, pp. 739-42; Coverdale, Italian Intervention, pp. 311-2; Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918-1945, Series D (1937-1945), Volume III, «Germany and the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939» (Washington, 1950), nos. 407, 4081 4101 411 [hereafter, work referred to as DGFP, followed by series, volume and document designators.]; Galeazzo Ciano, Diario 1937-1943 (Milan, 1980), pp. 32-3.
  5. Martínez Bande, La batalla de Teruel (Madrid, 1974); Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, pp. 789-94; Belforte, La guerra civile, vol. III, pp. 240-5; Salas Larrazábal, Air War, pp. 209-11; Alcofar Nassaes C.T.V., p. 150; idem., La aviación legionaria en la guerra española (Barcelona, 1975), pp. 273-83; Ettore Manca di Mores, L´impiego dell´artiglieria italiana nella guerra di Spagna (Rome, 1941), pp. 268-73; Ciano, Diario, 30, 31 Dec 1937, 7, 14, 25, 29 Jan 1938; DGFP, nos. 501, 503.
  6. Alcofar Nassaes, La aviación legionaria, pp. 227-48; idem., La marina italiana (Barcelona, 1975), pp. 243- 9; Ciano, Diario, 1 Jan, 8 Feb, 26 Feb, 20 March, 8, 9, 27, 28, 30 June 1938; DGFP, D, III, nos. 599, 621, 622, 623; Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, pp. 794-5, 806-9, 826-9. For detailed studies of the Italian air raids on Barcelona and the other towns and cities of Catalonia, see Joan Villarroya i Font, Els bombardeigs de Barcelona durant la Guerra Civil (Barcelona, 1981) ; Josep M. Sole i Sabaté and Joan Villaroya i Font, Catalunya sota les bombes (1936-1939) (Barcelona, 1986).
  7. Martínez Bande, La llegada al mar (Madrid, 1975); Coverdale, Italian intervention, pp. 417-20; Ciano, Diario, 19 April 1938; Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, 797-803.
  8. Belforte, La guerra civile, vol. IV, pp. 91-111; Manca di Mores, L´impiego dell´artiglieria italiana, pp. 413-29; Salas Larrazábal, Air War, pp. 254-83; Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, pp. 835-44, 854-6.
  9. Ilari and Sema, Marte in orbace, pp. 272-3; Coverdale, Italian Intervention, pp. 375-82, 419; Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, pp. 867-82; Ciano, Diario, 23, 24, 26, 28, 31 Dec 1938, 4, 5, 6, 7, 12, 15, 16, 17, 24, 26, 27, 1 Feb 1939; DGFP, D, 111, no. 712; Archivio Centrale di Stato, Segretaria Particolare del Duce, carteggio riservato [hereafter, ACS, SPD, CR], busta 67, fascicolo 463R, "Spagna," Gambara to Ciano, 23, 26, 27, 31 Dec. 1938, 27 Jan. 1939; ibid., Mussolini to Gambara, 3 Feb. 1939.
  10. Giuseppe d'Avanzo, Ali e poltrone (Rome, 1976), pp. 205-6, n. 24; Ilari and Sema, Marte in orbace, p. 260.
  11. Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, p. 911.
  12. NA T586, reel 1064, frames 063460-1; Coverdale, Italian Intervention, p. 393; Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, pp. 973-9; Belforte, La guerra civile, vol. IV, pp. 164, 192; Salas Larrazábal, Air War, p. 305; idem., Intervención extranjera en la guerra de España (Madrid, 1974), pp. 319-30, 435, 558-60; Giuseppe Santoro, L´aeronautica italiana nella seconda guerra mondiale, 2 vols. (Rome, 1957), vol. 1, pp. 13-4; Romeo Bernotti, Cinquanta anni nella Marina militare (Milan, 1971), pp. 240-1; Ilari and Sema, Marte in orbace, p. 263; Mario Montanari, «L´impegno italiano nella guerra di Spagna», Memorie storiche militari 1980 (Rome, 1930), pp. 149-52; Jesús Salas Larrazábal, Air War Over Spain (London, 1969), pp. 308-9, 321, 324-6. It should be noted that these sources are in general, but not complete, agreement about the exact amounts of arms and equipment provided.
  13. NA T586, reel 1062, frames 062973-63000; Salas Larrazábal, Intervención extranjera, pp. 265-6, 319-30, 428-35, 558; idem., Air War, pp. 121-2, 308; Sandro Piazzoni, Le Frecce Nere nella guerra di Spagna (1937-1939) (Rome, 1939), pp. 18, 27; Coverdale, Italian Intervention, pp. 170-9; Stanley Payne, The Spanish Revolution (New York, 1970), pp. 329-30
  14. For Italian diplomatic efforts in support of the Nationalists, see the relevant portions of Ciano, Diario ; idem., L'Europa versa la catastrofe (Milan, 1947; Renzo De Felice, Mussolini il duce. Lo Stato totalitario 1936-1940 (Turin, 1981), pp. 331-466. For Italian intelligence activities, see Clara Conti, Servizio segreto. Cronache e documenti dei delitti di Stato (Rome, 1945); idem., ed., Il processo Roatta. I documenti (Rome, 1945).
  15. MacGregor Knox, «Il fascismo e la politica estera italiana» in Richard J.B. Bosworth and Sergio Romano, eds., La politica estera italiana (1860-1985) (Bologna, 1935), pp. 291-328.
  16. DGFP, D, I, no. 19; Gerhard L. Weinberg, The Foreign Policy of Hitler´s Germany. Starting World War II, 1937-1939 (Chicago, 1980) , pp. 37-43.
  17. John E. Dreifort, Yvon Delbos at the Quai d´Orsay (Lawrence, Knsas; 1973), pp. 151-8; De Felice, Mussolini il duce II, pp. 347, 366, 386, 469-70; Mario Montanari, L´esercito italiano alla vigilia della 2a guerra mondiale (Rome, 1982), p. 412; DGFP, D, I, no. 19. pp. 36-8.
  18. Coverdale, Italian Intervention, pp. 87, 103-6, 114-5, 160-3, 171-5; DGFP, 0, III, nos. 136, 151, 157, 153, 198, 202, 204; ibid., I, nos. 2; NA T586, reel 1062, frames 062956-60; Weinberg, Foreign Policy of Hitler´s Germany, pp. 142-5, 149, 261-83.
  19. Dino Grandi papers, Georgetown University [hereafter DGP], reel 6, frames 22, 24, 40; ibid., reel 7, frames 1-5; De Felice, Mussolini il duce II, pp. 418-28.
  20. DGP, reel 6, frames 37-107; ibid., reel 7, frames 9-168; De Felice, Mussolini il duce II, pp. 429-66: D.C. Watt, «Gli accordi mediterranea anglo-italiane del 16 aprile 1938» Rivista di studi Politici-internazionale (Jan.-March 1959); Weinberg, Foreign Policy of Hitler´s Germany, pp. 283-302.
  21. DGP, reel 6, frames 110-14; ibid., reel 7, frames 170-9; ibid., reel 8, frames 33-6; Ciano, Diario, pp. 238-40, 264-85, 294-5.
  22. Weinberg, Foreign Policy of Hitler´s Germany, 566-7, 579- 81; DGFP, D, VI, no. 433, pp. 576, 580.
  23. Coverdale, Italian Intervention, pp. 407-10; Stanley Payne, The Franco Regime 1936-1975 (Madison, Wisconsin; 1987), p. 160. 24. Brian R. Sullivan, «The Impatient Cat: Assessments of Military Power in Fascist Italy, 1936-1940» in Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett, eds., Calculations. Net Assessment and the Coming of world War II (New York, 1992), pp. 115-33.
  24. Stato maggiore esercito, ufficio storico, L´esercito italiano tra la 1a e la 2a guerra mondiale novembre 1918-giugno 1940 (Rome, 1954), pp. 307, 311; Montanari, «L´impegno italiano nella guerra di Spagna», pp. 149-50.
  25. Lucio Ceva, Le forze armate (Turin, 1981), p. 244; idem., «Rapporti industria bellica ed esercito» (typescript), pp. 17-8; Ilari and Sema, Marte in orbace, p. 261; Giulio Benussi, Armi Portatili, artiglierie e semoventi del regio esercito italiano 1900-1943 (Milan, 1975), pp. 50-81.
  26. Francesco Pricolo, La regia aeronautica nella seconda guerra mondiale, novembre 1939-novembre 1941 (Milan, 1971), pp. 127, 203; Ilari and Sema, Marte in orbace, p. 263; Roberto Gentilli, L´aviazione di caccia italiana 1918-1939. Volume 2: Tecnica, stemmi, esportazioni (Florence, 1982), pp. 63-4, 131-2.
  27. Robert H. Whealey, «Economic Influence of the Great Powers in the Spanish Civil War», The International History Review (May 1983), p. 247; Franco Catalano, L'Italia verso la seconda guerra mondiale (Milan, 1983), pp. 28, 53; Angel Viñas, «The financing of the Spanish Civil War» in Paul Preston, ed., Revolution and War in Spain 1931-1939 (London, 1984), p. 281; MacGregor Knox, Mussolini Unleashed, 1939-1941. Politics and Strategy in Fascist Italy´s Last War (New York, 1982), p. 293; I documenti diplomatici italiani, series 9, volume 11, p. 617; Pricolo, La regia aeronautica, p. 92.
  28. Brian R. Sullivan, «The Italian Armed Forces, 1918-40» in Allan R. Millett and Williamson Murray, eds., Military Effectiveness, 3 vols. (Boston, 1988), vol. II, The Interwar Period, pp. 187, 193, 195, 197-9; Lucio Ceva, «Grande industria e guerra», Commissione italiana di storia militare, L'Italia in guerra. Il primo anno 1940 (Rome, 1991).
  29. Pricolo, La regia aeronautica pp. 29-36, 88, 96; Frank, «Naval Operations», pp. 37, 48; Emilio Faldella, Venti mesi di querra in Spagna (Florence, 1939), pp. 491-3, 503-4; Emilio Canevari, La guerra italiana, retroscena della disfatta, 2 vols. (Rome, 1948) vol. 1, pp. 457-504; Giuseppe D'Avanzo, Ali e poltrone (Rome, 1976), pp. 227-8; Ronald Fraser, Blood of Spain (New York, 1979), pp. 441-2; Lucio Ceva and Andrea Curami, La meccanizzazione dell´esercito italiano dalle origini al 1943, 2 vols. (Rome, 1989), vol. I, pp. 197-212. NA, T821, reel 107, frame 112; ibid., reel 384, frames 179-263, 296-329, 377-97; ibid., reel 473, frames 689-708.
  30. Williamson Murray, The Change in the European Balance of Power, 1938-1939. The Path to Ruin (Princeton, 1984), pp. 354-69.
  31. Sullivan, «The Impatient Cat», pp. 124-35.


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