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Strategic approaches adopted by the British and French in the Spanish Civil War

https://global-strategy.org/strategic-approaches-adopted-by-the-british-and-french-in-the-spanish-civil-war/ Strategic approaches adopted by the British and French in the Spanish Civil War 2019-06-11 17:59:48 Víctor Bados Nieto Blog post War Studies Guerra Civil española
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Abstract: The Spanish Civil War from July 1936 through April 1939 was a testing ground for the “policy of appeasement” that Britain and France practiced after the I World War in order to pursue their own national interests, while avoiding a major confrontation with Germany and Italy.

Yet, the Spanish civil war proved to become a high setback in the mutual understanding among the great European powers. The rise of fascism and Nazism had placed the United Kingdom and France in a delicate position to take sides without further traumatisms. However, the strategy that both powers held, for reasons analysed in this paper, yet not totally coincident were very alike as they fitted in which is known as the “policy of appeasement”.

Initially the Appeasement strategy of both countries is scrutinized to further continue analysing the main core features of their strategic approaches following the principles of the strategy making pattern, end-ways-means, to finally set forth some conclusions.

Spanish civil war. Historical background

The Spanish Civil War came about from July 1936 through April 1939 between the official republican government and a plotting faction of the Spanish Army led by the General Franco. Even though this article does not aim at elaborating on the causes of the war, it is worth highlighting the most relevant driving factors to the conflict to further understand the British and French internal domestic dynamics as well as their further positional strategic approaches towards the civil strife. The major key issues leading to the war[1] can be ascribed to the chaotic security situation across the country whereby the anarchy, chaos and confusion took possession of the day-to-day life; a long-standing social injustice bearing deep social-economic inequalities owing to the failure of the political class to improve the living conditions of workers and peasants; a revolutionary process instilled by hard-liner Socialists, communists and anarchists conducting a harsh anticlericalism against the traditional conservative Spanish families under the framework of a repressive official policy versus the Catholic institutions[2]; the radicalization of the Basque and Catalan nationalism in the quest for independence and finally, the resentment towards militaries as responsible for the last North-African colonial adventures and its support to the former monarchic regime.

When the conflict broke out the plotters, the Nationalists, were predominantly composed of the Spanish Army based in Morocco supported by the right wing-oriented political parties and militias while the left side, known as the Republicans, were formed by the government-loyal Army along with unions, communists, anarchists and many workers and peasants. Conversely Franco also garnered support from the nationalists, the bourgeoisie, the landlords and the traditional catholic-minded families[3].

Eventually the Spanish civil war meant a high setback in the mutual understanding among the great European powers.  The rise of fascism and Nazism had placed the United Kingdom and France in a delicate position to take sides without further traumatisms. However, the strategy that both powers held, for reasons I will analyse hereafter, yet not totally coincident were very alike as they fitted in which has been known as the policy of appeasement, a sort of au milieu strategy[4]. In addition, the League of Nations showed its ineffectiveness and uselessness since the outbreak of the hostilities.

In this paper I will start tackling the Appeasement strategy to further outline the British and French strategies to continue analysing the main core features of their strategic approaches following the principles of RCDS Strategy handbook[5] to finally set forth some conclusions.

The British-French appeasement strategy

After the WW I, the League of Nation came to light as a body in charge of maintaining peace and collective security. However, at the end of 1929 the deep economic crisis along with other socio-political factors highlighted its fragility to consolidate stability and collective security because of the serious imbalances in inter-state relations and the internal socio-political dynamics of several European and extra-European powers[6]. The main threat in Europe to the prevailing international order came from the new counterrevolutionary and totalitarian regimes implanted by Mussolini in Italy, (1922) and Hitler in Germany (1933). The incapacity of the League of Nations became evident when Japan occupied the Chinese province of Manchuria, Hitler ordered the remilitarization of the Rhineland and Italy occupied Abyssinia, despite the protests and denunciations of the League of Nations.

In this European political scenario, Britain, seconded by the France[7], had set in force the so-called “appeasement policy” towards those rising and potential transgressor states. This policy was essentially an emergency diplomatic strategy intended to avoid a new war through explicit negotiations (or implicit acceptance) of the changes in the territorial status quo that substantially satisfied the German-Italian revisionist demands without putting in danger the Franco-British vital interests[8]. In this sense, France and Great Britain continued trusting in the possibility of avoiding a new armed confrontation and achieving a rearrangement of the Italian and German pretensions in the European and international concert.

That policy rested in the conviction of both democracies about the impossibility to wage a possible conflict with the three revisionist powers simultaneously owing to the inadequate military assets, enough human resources or lack of economic means. The economic weakness of both countries as a result of the serious economic crisis had affected much more to France than to Great Britain, who granted the latter a dominant position in the Franco-British bilateral alliance. Thus, the French and British military were unable to face a simultaneous armed conflict with Japan in the Far East, with Germany in Europe and against Italy in the Mediterranean[9].

French Strategic approach

Consistent with the appeasement policy, the au milieu French strategic end after the Versailles Treaty was therefore to weaken Germany since its industrial capacity[10], resources, workforce and geographic situation at the heart of Europe kept still looming as a big threat for France existential interests. The ways and means conceived to perform such a task were to impose draconian war reparations demands, promote the separatist movements in the Rhineland and the Polish claims in Silesian and pressure to turn the Nations Society into a Military Alliance in defence of the Versailles Treaty[11].  

Focused on the Spanish civil conflict let us see the French interests and other analysis factors to “frame the discussion” prior to present the French positional strategy on the conflict. It needs to be said that France depended on the Iberian Peninsula for minerals and food supplies. Spain was the world’s leading producer of pyrites, main raw material for obtaining sulfuric acid, which was a basic component in several sectors of the chemical industry, including the manufacture of explosives[12]. Moreover, the risk of Spain becoming a hostile country would mean for France to enlarge the sea lines of communications with its North-African colonies since a hostile base in the Balearic Islands would make the Algiers-Marseille route very unsafe. This factor would complicate the troops transport in case a large conflict in Europe as it would force to resort to the maritime route from Rabat to Bordeaux bordering the Spanish west coast, tripling thus the time shipping[13].. In addition, supporting the Republican government might signify backing up the Bolsheviks, a frightening circumstance since a massive presence of communist working-class movements had paralyzed France with strikes and other activities of that nature[14].

France was fearing for a long time the Spanish civil war to happen as they counted on a precise intelligence from French Morocco of the ongoing Spanish “Africanist” preparations[15]. However, when the conflict broke out the Government did not have developed yet a devised and agreed positional strategy to undertake. When the conflict broke out, the prime minister Blum initially decided secretly to accept the demand for Spanish republican aid with the acquiescence of socialists and communists, as well as sectors of the radical party. For its part, the political right, Catholic public opinion and the Army strongly rejected the idea of sending any aid to the Spanish Republic, postulating neutrality in fear of an unleashed European war[16]. In fact, the French high-ranking officers wanted the rebellion to succeed as they considered nationalist military cabinet as the defenders of the Christian civilisations[17] as well as the major stoppers of the bolshevist communism, at that time a factual threat in France.

Due to both the deep internal division in France and the irreducible British neutralist attitude[18] France revoked its initial decision to render aid to the Republic. On July 25, 1936, after an intense debate in the council of ministers, Léon Blum announced the decision not to intervene in the Spanish conflict and cancel any shipment of arms and ammunition. The French rulers believed that this helped to appease the internal situation, to strengthen the alliance with Great Britain and to avoid the danger of its expansion into a European war[19].The French proposal to achieve a pact of non-intervention and collective arms embargo was immediately taken over by the British authorities what was articulated by a No-Intervention Agreement in the form of a Committee, based in London and composed of the respective diplomatic representatives in the capital[20]. That course of action was consistent with the lack of means that France could wield at that time since the economy and military muscle were in bad shape to build more aggressive and bolder responses.

However, Italy and Germany did not comply with the pact from the start by backing up the nationalists with military equipment and personnel while conversely the Soviet Union profited of the weak implementation of the embargo to provide all kind of political and military assistance to the Spanish republican government. Soviet Union also endorsed through the International Communist Parties the recruitment of volunteers to integrate the International Brigades[21]

The major risk of the conflict envisioned by France came from the fact that the installation of a Spanish government allied with Germany and Italy would have meant France to be encircled by hostile powers, a danger that in the 16th and 17th centuries had been materialised with the presence of the Habsburgs on the thrones of Germany and Spain[22].

Consequently, in terms of the strategy crafting, the ends, ways and means of the French positional strategy towards the Spanish civil can be set out as follows. As goals, avoid the Spanish conflagration to spill over Europe, prevent the Spanish Bolshevik revolution from spreading into France as the spectre of the communist subversion became an obsession in the Army General Staff after the revolutionist atmosphere in Paris in July 36[23] and avoid being encircled by hostile nations. The French ways were based upon the Non-intervention attitude by a neutrality policy and finally the means went to ensure an effective arms embargo to all sides in the conflict.

As to the strategy implementation and review, even though the Non-Intervention Agreement was repeatedly breached by Germany and Italy to support Franco´s troops, and Soviet Union to aid the Republic, it did not suppose any substantial change in the French neutrality strategy other than they covertly on occasions aided the Republican forces[24]. In this sense France also turned a blind eye to let the soviet military assets to enter the peninsula through the Pyrenees. Besides the French Communist Party (FCP) organized and participated the International Brigades.

British Strategic approach

The British strategy towards the Spanish civil war was fully aligned and consistent with the appeasement policy/strategy that the country vehemently pursued during the interwar period and was consistent with the pressure put on France to keep a neutral stance that gave rise to the permanent Non-Intervention Committee based in London.

Firstly, let us frame the British significances of the Spanish conflict whose major strategic and economic interests in Spanish soil resided on Gibraltar, as a seaport pinnacle for the British control of the Mediterranean and communications with India; Spain was the most important commercial client of Great Britain absorbing 25 percent of its exports providing 10 percent of its imports and the British capital accounted 40 percent of foreign investments in the country, mostly concentrated on iron mining and pyrites[25]:

Despite those important interests, from June 1936 the most outstanding British au milieu strategic position was not to get into a war against Germany and Italy, aim very coherent with its appeasement policy[26]. Therefore, the main objective of British diplomacy was to restore harmonious relations with Italy (altered by the earlier Italian conquest of Abyssinia) in order to stabilise the Mediterranean situation and avoid an Italian alignment with a potentially hostile Germany and Japan.

There was a genuine concern in the Foreign Office that a general European war based on ideological divisions might develop as a result of unchecked intervention. A policy of non-intervention was therefore considered essential to confine the civil war to the Spanish arena[27].

Therefore, the British positional strategic end relates to the Spanish civil war could be substantiated in “keeping a stable and secure Europe by confining the Spanish civil war within its borders to avoid war spilling over the rest of Europe, refrain the French intervention in support of the Spanish republican government and prevent Spain from aligning with the Soviet Union[28]”.

The ways and means to attain this end were set out in four major strands. The rejection of the Republican fleet in Gibraltar, which was neutralised for the rest of the war; the imposition of a secret embargo on arms to the Republic although it was the only side who could legally buy arms in the British market until the formal proclamation of neutrality; pressure on the French government in order to prevent it giving any help to the Republic and the avoidance of any confrontation with Germany and Italy over their military support for Franco[29].

Concerning the implementation and review of the British position, this started to switch in Dec 18 once the Non-Intervention Committee proved useless to stop the German-Italian support to the plotters and the Soviet assistance to the republicans[30]. Great Britain although keeping the arms and ammunitions embargo, but fearing a protracted conflict established secret bilateral talks with the insurgents to ensure the commercial relations between Great Britain and the belligerents and doing so, to ensure the mineral (pyrites) supply of the British-owned mines in Spanish soil[31]. Afterwards the British approach changed again when the victory of Franco was considered very likely, Great Britain would regard it as not a serious political or strategic problem for the Franco-British agreement. On one hand, the human exhaustion and material destruction caused by the devastating civil war would make impossible for Franco to participate in a European conflict even if he wanted to do so. On the other, the Francoist government would need to resort to credit and British capital to finance the post-war economic reconstruction process in Spain. In short, the British Conservative government chaired by Neville Chamberlain from May 1937 considered that the Spanish Republic could be sacrificed for the sake of the beneficial Italian cooperation in Europe and the preservation of continental peace[32]..

The British assumptions were placed on the belief that war would be short given the lack of skills of the Republican militias and the seasoned Francoist Army and secondly on the “diplomacy of pound sterling” by believing that the future military regime would have to seek help in the City of London in order to finance the post-war economic reconstruction of Spain[33].


The British and French held an analogous strategy during the Spanish Civil War. Both aimed to prevent the Spanish civil war from crossing the borders and becoming a European major fighting as well as avoid the bolshevist communism to spread into Spain and further into their own sovereign countries. The reasons to conceive those neutral stances of non-intervention strategies were mainly based on a total absence of means and resources as a result of economic problems and the lack of US support. Thus, we can conclude that the level of ambition, that is the end of both strategies were perfectly aligned with available assets.

In this way, inaction as a mode of action proved fruitful initially, since the war was contained within the Spanish borders and the bolshevist revolutions did not affect neither of both nations. However, in the long run it did not allow the French nor the British strategic objectives to be attained since their primary strategic end, avoiding a major conflict in Europe blatantly failed because the II WW just started 4 months after the end of the Spanish civil war.  

The positive side of both strategies might be settled in the fact that Spain did not take sides during the II WW, one of the great Franco-British fears in case of a major European confrontation. Besides, Great Britain maintained a pragmatic positional strategic approach towards the conflict based upon an utterly neutralist and non-interventionist position since when the war eventually started tilting on the nationalist side Great Britain set relations with Franco to both ensuring future commercial and economic benefits and avoiding Spanish enmity in case a future major conflict in Europe.

All in all, even though the Franco-British major strategic end to avoid an European conflict was failed, the British positional strategic approach towards the Spanish Civil war proved to be more beneficial to British as for their the national interests than to French. Great Britain ensured its status quo in Spain concerning Gibraltar and its further economic and commercial interests in the country while France could not assure its aspirations to become a maritime power in the Mediterranean.

Victor Mario Bados Nieto es General de Brigada del Ejército de Tierra. Actualmente se encuentra realizando curso de Liderazgo Estratégico, Seguridad y Relaciones Internacionales del Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) y el Master de Seguridad del King’s College London (KCT), siendo igualmente candidato a doctor por la Universidad de Granada.


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Berdah Jean-François, La démocratie assassinée, la République espagnole et les grandes puissances. 1931-1939, Paris, Berg International Éditeurs, 2000.

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[1] Manuel Azaña, Causas de la Guerra de España (Barcelona: Critica, 1986), 10 

[2] Rafael Zaragoza Pelayo, “Las causas de la guerra civil española desde la perspectiva actual: aproximación a los diversos enfoques históricos”, HAOL 14, 167-174, file:///C:/Users/Madoc/Downloads/Dialnet-LasCausasDeLaGuerraCivilEspanolaDesdeLaPerspectiva-2529527.pdf

[3] Ibidem Azaña, 25

[4] A national strategy is the one adopted “In between” wars. However, a national positional strategy aims at addressing emerging crisis or conflicts such as the Franco-British approach towards the Spanish Civil War. The latter is to be consistent to the “au milieu strategic” approach.

[5] RCDS, “Getting strategy right”, 2017, https://www.da.mod.uk/Portals/0/Documents/RCDS/20170904-RCDS_Getting_Strategy_Right_Enough_Final.pdf?ver=2017-09-08-090748-807

[6] Anthony Adamthwaite, The Lost Peace. International Relations in Europe, 1918-1939 (Londres: Edward Arnold, 1980)

[7] France and Britain are referred in the paper as the ruling parties and politicians of both countries not personalizing most of times with names of prime ministers or other personalities

[8] Martin Thomas. Britain, France and Appeasement: Anglo-French Relations in the Popular Front Era (New York: Berg Publishers, 1996)

[9] Enrique Moradiellos, “Un Triángulo vital para la República: Gran Bretaña, Francia y la Unión Soviética ante la Guerra Civil española” , (2001), https://journals.openedition.org/amnis/248#ftn6

[10] The German industrial production was as twice as the French one that time.

KENNEDY, P., Auge y caída de las grandes potencias (Barcelona: Plaza Janes, 1989), 4

[11] Rocio Navarro Comas, “La política anglo-francesa durante la guerra civil española: análisis del acuerdo de no-intervención”, Dialnet no 4 (1997), https://dialnet.unirioja.es/ejemplar/59813

[12] BORRAS LLOP, J. M., Intereses económicos y actitudes políticas en las relaciones franco-españolas (1936-1939): el comercio de piritas, en AA.VV., españoles y franceses en la primera mitad del siglo XX (Madrid: CSIC, 1986), 65-70.

[13] Royal Institute of International Affairs, Political and Strategic Interests of the United Kingdom (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), 58.

[14] Jean-Marc Delaunay, Les intérets Français en Espagne. (Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1989) 165-172

[15] Ibidem Martin Thomas, 90

[16] The president of the French Republic bluntly warned Blum “What you propose to do, deliver arms to Spain, may mean the European war or the revolution in France”. Geoffrey Warner, “France and Non-Intervention in Spain, July-August 1936”, International Affairs, vol. 38, no 2, (1962): 203-220

[17] Ibidem Peter Jackson, 150

[18] Michele Catala. “L’attitude de la France face à la Guerre d’Espagne: l’échec des négociations pour la reconnaissance du gouvernement franquiste en 1938, Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez” 29-3, (1993): 243-262

[19] Ibidem Enrique Moradiellos

[20] Enrique Moradiellos, La política británica ante la guerra civil española, Espacio, Tiempo y Forma, Serie V, Hf Contemporánea, t. V, (1992):191. Glyn Arthur Stone, Neville Chamberlain and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-9, The International History Review (2013):379

[21] Military units composed of foreign fighters committed to the democratic ideas or to the left communist principles most of cases. 

[22] Juan Aviles Farres. “Francia y la guerra civil española: Los límites de una política”, Espacio, Tiempo y Forma, Serie V, I-I.’ Contemporánea, t. V, (1992): 165-184

[23] Peter Jackson.” Stratégie et idéologie: le Haut Commandement Français et la guerre civile espagnole”. Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains, No. 199 (Juillet 2001):115

[24] G. Stone, Spain, Portugal and the Great powers, 191-1941, Basigstoke, 2005, p 51

[25] Enrique Moradiellos.” El gobierno británico y la guerra de España: Apaciguamiento y No Intervención” Historia del Presente, 74. (2006):71-86

[26] Ibidem Moradiellos

[27] Glyn Arthur Stone.” Neville Chamberlain and the Spanish Civil War, 1936–39”. The International History Review, (2013): 379

[28] Enrique Moradiellos. “Un Triángulo vital para la República: Gran Bretaña, Francia y la Unión Soviética ante la Guerra Civil española”. Hispania Nova, no1, (1989)

[29] Ibidem Moradiellos

[30] Ibidem Glyn Arthur Stone, 381

[31] Ibidem Glyn Arthur Stone, 386

[32] Ibidem Moradiellos

[33] Ibidem Moradiellos

Víctor Bados Nieto

Victor Mario Bados Nieto es General de Brigada del Ejército de Tierra. Ha realizado el curso Liderazgo Estratégico, Seguridad y Relaciones Internacionales del Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) y el Master de Seguridad del King’s College London

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