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The adaptability of the German Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39

https://global-strategy.org/the-adaptability-of-the-german-condor-legion-in-the-spanish-civil-war-1936-39/ The adaptability of the German Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39 2020-12-05 07:28:00 Juan José De Arriba Muñoz Blog post War Studies Guerra Civil española
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Global Strategy Report, 57/2020

Abstract: Recent wars in the 19th Century showed us great examples of how militaries change in wartime and how they adapt in critical situations. The German Condor Legion was one of the best examples of military adaptation in the dawn of WWII. They were able to overcome the sudden loss of Air Superiority in the Spanish Civil War, and they did it quickly and effectively. However, how was the adaptation relatively quickly?.  Which factors were the most important?  What obstacles had to be overcome by the Luftwaffe? and which decisions were critical to success? The Luftwaffe high-rank officers addressed these questions successfully. The Spanish Civil War was an opportunity for the Luftwaffe to test doctrine, organization, and equipment. Besides, the lessons learned from the Spanish Civil War provided the Luftwaffe with an unrivaled position for the future development of the Luftwaffe doctrine and Blitzkrieg tactics in WWII.


The German Condor Legion was seen by the Luftwaffe as an opportunity to test doctrine, logistics, and material before a hypothetical major event in Europe. During the first stages of the Spanish Civil War, the absolute dominion of the airspace was achieved rapidly by the German planes with the support of the National side. However, in the early days of 1937, the Germans had to overcome the growing challenge of the new Soviet planes arriving in Spain. The Luftwaffe was able to adapt institutionally under the command of Colonel Von Richthofen facing logistics challenges and tactically, with the development of new tactics that were successfully employed later in WWII.

To explain how the Germans achieved air superiority it is necessary to understand that the German contribution to the Spanish Civil War was not glorious from the beginning. It was about an adaptation to the circumstances, which it went on to develop for its own benefit. Initially, according to German orders, the Luftwaffe was not to engage in combat. The duty of the German military was to transport and instruct, being able to act in defense only if they were attacked. This arrangement changed on August 13, 1936, when two Junkers-52s converted into bombers, attacked the Republican battleship Jaime I. Eleven days later, the Heinkel-51 biplane aircraft arrived at the Spanish battlefield. The first aircraft to arrive in Spain were equipped with a faulty precision and bomb delivery system. Two weeks later there were already in Spain combat devices with improved targeting mechanisms. That gives us information on how quick Germans were able to implement new technological improvements. The founding of the Legion as such took place on October 30, 1936, by Hitler in Berlin. Next months, the German Condor air superiority was beyond any doubt and in the autumn of 1936, there were already 146 German aircraft in Spain, organized in two formations: the Gruppe Eberhardt (with He-51 aircraft) and the Gruppe Moreau (20 Ju-52 and 2 He-70F for aerial reconnaissance). The air superiority was common during these months, but how did the German Air Force react to the arrival of new planes to the Republican side?

In February 1937, the German Condor Legion suffered some unexpected defeats as the picture was not so clean as in previous months. Not only did they not destroy Republican defenses, but they were losing some units repeatedly. It was the end of the pleasant rides in the Iberian Peninsula. The main cause was that the Republicans began to have certain air superiority, thanks to the planes supplied and piloted by the Soviets, such as the Polikarpov I-15 “Chato” and I-16 “Mosca”, which escorted to the Tupolev ANT-40 SB and “Katyuscha” bombers. On the German side, the He-51s were soon vulnerable and the Ju-52s appears to have a not safe escort (Asensio, 1999: 2).

From my point of view, the German Air Force was able to counteract the effect of Republican technological superiority very quickly and effectively. The sudden appearance of the “Chato” and “the “Mosca” force the Germans into the Institutional and Tactical adaptation.

Richthofen and Sperrle’s impetus & sound logistics

The Luftwaffe realized rapidly that they need to put their latest models into combat as they were losing a lot of units daily. Furthermore, they faced with the Soviet superiority of the bombing Tupolev Katiuska and the Polikarpovs. The chief of staff of the Legion Condor at this time was Coronel Wolfram von Richthofen, cousin of the famous ace Manfred von Richthofen and the Generalmajor of the Legion was Major Hugo Sperrle, a WWI veteran ace. They both proved to be a highly effective leadership team. The two of them set policies that remained in place for the entire existence of the Legion Condor, like the regular visits to the Spanish units at the front to observe close air support (CAS) operations to obtain feedback (Corum, 2020: 40). Sperrle, as a senior German officer in Spain, dealt directly with Franco and his government and staff at the strategic level. Von Richthofen ran the day-to-day operations of the Legion and oversaw the operational war planning (Corum, 2020: 17). Von Richthofen was appointed as commander at the end of 1936, reaching Spain, in January 1937. He was one of the main supporters of bringing the most modern planes to the Spanish Civil War and it was remarkable his organizational and command role during the northern peninsula campaign. He is considered one of the main responsible for the bombing of Guernica. As all the leaders of the Condor Legion desperately requested new models to the experimentation campground that it was the Spanish Civil War those days, Von Richthofen and Sperrle were able to overcome the bureaucratic barriers to the arrival of new planes to the campaign, making several trips to German to meet with the führer personally. Their personal proposal gave impetus to the idea and finally, the Luftwaffe opted to replace the Ju-52s with the faster He-111 and the antiquated He-51 fighters replace by the Messerschmitt Bf- 109 (Riesgo, 2003: 277).

The second challenge that faced this Institutional Adaptation was the logistics of bringing these huge amounts of planes to Spain. In those days, airplanes couldn’t cover long distances. And, of course, they were not going to carry one of their “classified” weapons flying through the middle of France, Germany’s then greatest enemy. The North Front was located in the main merchant line communicated by railroad between the Galician port of Vigo and the Leon Air Base. Due to its characteristics, this line of supply ended up being the support and supply base of the new arriving planes, but the most important Nazi submarines in Spain in World War II. In less than one month, the Luftwaffe was able to dismantle, pack, and ship He-111 on a regular basis.

The Legion Condor spent the winter of 1936/37 expanding from a few hundred personnel to a force of more than 5,000. While organizing the full force and developing sound logistics, aircraft maintenance, and support systems. The Legion Condor received some of Germany’s newest military aircraft to put into combat (Corum, 2020: 48).

Furthermore, the German logistic chain was able not only to replace the most critical aircraft but to bring more types of planes as in Guernica, for example, 12 types of combat aircraft were tested, some of which were mass-produced later on (Kogelfranz & Plate, 1989: 328). The He-111 debuted on March 9, 1937, attacking Barajas and Alcalá de Henares. Later it was used in the battles of Guadalajara, Brunete, Teruel, the Ebro, and Catalonia.

Close air support & finger four tactics

It is widely known that the Spanish Civil War was seen by top-level officers of the Luftwaffe as a training campground for future conflicts. It was the right place, at the right time to develop, test, and practice new tactics, techniques, and procedures. General Wever[1] was the precursor of the German air war thinking. He was in charge of developing the Luftwaffe Regulation 16, Luftkriegführung (Conduct of the Air War), which describes that the air force would carry out both independent strategic missions and also conduct joint operations with the army and navy. (Corum, The Legion Condor. The Luftwaffe develops Blitzkrieg in the Spanish Civil War, 2020, pág. 29). The lack of air superiority due to the sudden appearance of the I-15 and I-16 pushed the Luftwaffe to avoid the concept of the Strategic bombing. Strategic bombing was recognized as a core mission by the Luftwaffe’s doctrine and it was seen in the first stages of the war in Madrid in 1936. As a first response to the lack of air superiority and with no guaranteed escort, the Legion Condor swapped daytime bombing for the nighttime bombing, with the inevitable effects on accuracy. The bombing of Madrid was soon cancelled, partly because night bombing was inaccurate and day bombing was too dangerous for the Nationalist bombers within the face of Republican/Soviet air superiority. By December 1936 on the Madrid front, the Nationalists found themselves unable to fly except in large formations and under heavy fighter escort (Corum, 2020: 21). This fact had a tremendous impact on the German side as they have to operate in close proximity to the front. Although their doctrine mandate close coordination between the air force and the army, the Legion Condor refined immediately the synergy between air and ground. By the end of the war the Germans, were able to develop its system of liaison to the army’s tactical level with their Fliegerverbindungoffiziere (air liaison officers) or Flivos. The Flivos could not be understood like in today’s concept of integrated CAS and had only a strict liaison role, but for the purpose of this paper the initial tactical adaptation of the Legion Condor occurs in the years 36-37, when the Germans developed tactics such as shuttle attacks, chain attacks, “flying artillery” and all manner of coordination up to, but not including, radio communication (Corum, 1997: 194).

The shuttle attacks force the Germans to have airfields intentionally positioned close to the frontline. Proximity allowed the squadrons to go back and forth to the front three or four times per aircraft during the battle, which put incredible pressure on the enemy in the key parts of the battle.

The chain attacks were developed by Spanish Nationalist pilot Joaquin García Morato and were quickly integrated by the Luftwaffe. The chain attacks consisted of several aircraft targeting the same ground objective repeatedly. After the leader’s impacts took effect, his wingmen could try to hit where he did if the leader was on target. If the leader missed, the wingmen could adjust their attack onto the correct target based on either the leader’s hits or the impacts of the aircraft preceding them. The probability of achieving a direct hit rose dramatically. Both shuttling and chain attacks have modern CAS descendants in the tactics employed by both fixed and rotary wing attack aircraft (Gallogly, 2011).. Besides, the Luftwaffe wisely rotated crews to spread the experience base and employed it in an interdiction and CAS role and, as we see, Legion Condor Commanders set a tradition by regularly visiting the front to observe close air support operations with Junior officers.

The way the Legion Condor modernized their tactics from Strategic bombing into CAS, developing the current doctrine they had and generating teamwork was fundamental to the Blitzkrieg tactics that Germany would use in Poland, Denmark, and Norway during the first years of WWII.

In the Air to Air arena, Legion Condor evolved the current fighter tactics. During the first part of the Spanish Civil War where the Luftwaffe had air superiority, they continued to use the VIC formation of three aircraft inherited from WWI. Captain Werner Mölders volunteered to go to Spain, arriving in March 1938 and assigned to a squadron which was still equipped with the He-51 but in the process of transitioning to the Bf-109. He was responsible for transitioning from the thigh close VIC formation of three aircraft which relied on hand signals to communicate and was separated 10 feet apart to the new “Finger Four” tactics more flexible. Effective voice radios installed in the advanced fighters of the late 1930s allowed fighter commanders to control their units in far superior wide and loose formations. Now fighter squadron tactics would be based on pairs and small groups. Instead of a 10 feet spread between aircraft, as in the old tactics, aircraft could now fly 100–200 feet apart, since radio contact provided them with effective communications (Corum, 2020: 93). The section leader flew upfront with his wingman on the sun side covering the opposite direction. The second pair flew opposite to the sun from the leader’s point of view, covering the zone against the sun, which is the most vulnerable. Planes flew at about 75 feet from one another but at different altitudes to better protect each other and to monitor a broader area. If attacked, the two teams split up, one turning left, the other right (Reader’s Digest Association Canada).

These tactics proved to be highly flexible and enabled each pilot in the formation a greater degree of freedom to scan the sky for enemy aircraft. It was these tactics which the Luftwaffe would use successfully in the Battle of Britain against the RAF, which was still reliant on the rigid VIC formation (Barley, 2006: 299).

Werner Mölders developed superior tactics that are currently used by fighter squadron daily, these tactics in conjunction with the high-performance of the Bf-109 were able to recover the air superiority for the Nationalist side and to inflict heavy damage to the Republican/Soviet air force.


The Spanish Civil War was an opportunity for the Luftwaffe to test doctrine, organization, and equipment in a similar future battlefield. The sudden loss of air superiority was counteracted institutionally and tactically.

Von Richthofen and Sperrle were able to bring the new He-51 and Bf-109 to Spain in a record time and getting over the barriers of the Luftwaffe’s staff. Furthermore, the Germans were able to build a logistic chain avoiding France that supplied the Nationalist side.

Surprising how small the Legion was and interesting to see how their lessons learned evolved into Luftwaffe doctrine and Blitzkrieg tactics in WWII. The nature of the Spanish Civil War dictated that the main effort was the ground offensive, but the loss of air superiority pushed the Germans to stop the Strategic bombing and developed its CAS tactics. In the Air to Air tactics, Werner Mölders developed new fighter tactics in combat that continue to be used by air forces throughout the world allowing the Legion Condor to regain control of the air rapidly.

The adaptation provoked by the Republican side was made efficiently by the Luftwaffe and applied to the Legion Condor. The learning the Luftwaffe obtained, is confirmed by testimonies such as Hitler’s: “Now that the war is coming to an end our soldiers can no longer learn more” or General von Reichenau’s: “Two years of experience in the war has been more useful than ten years of training in peacetime”.


Asensio, A. (1999). La Legión Cóndor.

Riesgo, J. (2003). Las verdaderas causas del bombardeo de Guernica y sus auténticos resultados.

Kogelfranz, S., & Platte, E. (1989). Sterben für die Friheit.

Corum, J. (2020). The Legion Condor 1936–39. The Luftwaffe develops Blitzkrieg in the Spanish Civil War.

Corum, J. (1997). The Luftwaffe.

Gallogly, P. (2011). The evolution of integrated close air support: world war ii, korea and the future of air-ground combined arms synergy.

Barley, M. (2006). Contributing to its Own Defeat: The Luftwaffe andthe Battle of Britain.

Reader’s Digest Association Canada. (n.d.). The Tools of War, 1939/45: And a Chronology of Important Events Author .

[1] General Walther Wever, Luftwaffe chief of staff 1934–36. Wever’s leadership of the Luftwaffe ensured that when the Germans were committed to Spain, they were well-trained and had a sound doctrine for modern war. (USAF Historical Research Agency)

Editado por: Global Strategy. Lugar de edición: Granada (España). ISSN 2695-8937

Juan José De Arriba Muñoz

Piloto de F-18. Profesor Asociado de la Universidad de Navarra. Máster en Relaciones Internacionales por Johns Hopkins School of Advance International Studies

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Juan José De Arriba Muñoz