Friday, 15 September 2017

Through The Looking Glass



"You, who love Catalonia... have a place
reserved in the battalions of the Volunteers
of Bruc". The Drummer of El Bruc is a
popular Catalan nationalist icon.
I have always been quite a stickler for an historically accurate depiction of the Spanish Civil War and I have always been quite leery of any 'improvements' that might be offered by adding some elements of alternate history or 'what-if' scenarios. Besides Spain's own military of this time, I also have an interest in other European militaries of this same era, particularly those of France, which are very closely related to those of the Spanish.

I have also wondered what would have happened if France had not turned its back on the Spanish Republic, or even if they had committed a force of a similar size to that of the Italian CTV, alongside other material support. While such an intervention would be extremely unlikely at the start of the Civil War in 1936, this all changed after the Anschluss of 1938.

Through A Glass Darkly is a scenario that will follow on from the purely historical ¡Arriba España! and has its beginnings at the end of the Ebro Campaign of 1938. I confess that it is all really to justify collecting French forces to pit against Spanish Nationalists, as an alternative to the Republicans, but it is not so far-fetched as it might seem; as I hope to demonstrate.

I had hoped to include the British in this venture, but as yet I have not discovered any hint that this was even a faint possibility. While the British public were around 60% in favour of helping the Spanish Republic, the 15% or so that were wholly supportive of the Nationalists included the bulk of the Government, 'the political establishment' and many figures in the business world. French involvement was more likely to cause a rift between Britain and France, than it would prompt Britain to support the action.

March 1938

"Oh well, turning a hundred motorcycle combis is easier than turning a hundred trucks". French Dragons Porte motorcyclists take a break in 1940.
On 12th March 1938 the German Army crossed into Austria and the Anschluss was announced the following day. The German support for the Invasion of Abyssinia by Italy in 1935 and their working relationship in Spain, also indicated that the two countries were growing ever closer. The Locarno Treaty, which had bound Britain, France, Italy and a number of smaller countries in an alliance against possible German expansion was failing.

After the Anschluss the parties of the left in France began to put a lot of pressure on French Premier Léon Blum and his foreign minister, Joseph Paul-Boncour, to intervene in Spain on behalf of the Republic. Parliament would have to be consulted before an actual intervention, especially to mollify the Right, but plans began to be made nevertheless. It was a widely held view in France however, that a general European war would result if France intervened in Spain.

The Republican Ambassador to France, Ossorio y Gallardo, along with the Russian ambassador, Jacob Suritz, both attempted to persuade Blum and Paul-Boncour to intervene. In Britain former prime minister David Lloyd-George was also engaged in speaking out in favour of intervention. He too ultimately visited Paris to speak with Blum on the matter. 

The Communists and socialists also organised demonstrations up to 10,000 strong, with "Guns and planes for Spain" as their slogan. Cynics noted that the industrial workers who formed the bulk of the protesters, were bolstered by the knowledge that they would be safe in their factories; it would be peasants and colonial forces who would be sent to fight. 

The Army too was opposed to supplying weapons and equipment that might be discarded in just a matter of weeks, to be picked up by Franco's Army instead. Nevertheless the Spanish border was re-opened and France began to send humanitarian aid, arms and munitions to Spain. Soviet vessels were also able to dock at Marseilles and other ports, and their cargoes sent by rail and road to Spain. This avoided a veritable gauntlet of Italian aircraft and vessels that were based in Sardinia and the Balearics.  

Despite the Army's objections a plan was ordered to be formulated, which would involve an army corps of four infantry divisions, along with the normal complement of support elements.  At the same time consideration was to be given to seizing Spain's Moroccan protectorate, which had been originally granted by treaty and which the Republic was legally entitled to annul. These operations could not be launched overnight however and several months would be required to prepare the plans, let alone assemble the forces for such action.  

The Munich Crisis

French Dragons Portes cruising for chicks in their P19 carrier.
By October 1938 the situation had worsened still. In April, only a month after the Anschluss, Blum's government fell and he was replaced by Édouard Daladier, who was of the belief that war was inevitable and that France was on borrowed time. While Neville Chamberlain, Britain's Prime Minister, was talking about "peace in our time", Daladier was negotiating to buy American aircraft and arranging to set up a plant in Savannah Georgia to make S-35 tanks. 

In Spain the Republic was seemingly in its death throes, it had now been divided into two areas, one based Catalonia and its capital Barcelona, and the other was an ever-shrinking area between Valencia and Madrid. The Ebro Offensive that had begun in July, in an attempt to join Barcelona and Valencia together once more, had failed. The Republic was also now virtually under the control of the Communists and no French premier was going to shed French blood to save Spain from the fascists, only to hand it to the Communists.

Italy and Germany had grown ever closer in the preceding eight months and Mussolini was able to say that Berlin and Rome were the axis around which Europe would in future revolve, after signing what became known as the 'Axis Coalition' agreement between Italy and Germany in late October. France's Cordon Sanitaire was breached with the Munich Agreement, as its member nations were shown that France would not go to war to defend them, as was the case with Czechoslovakia.  

Mirror, Mirror 

Many of the units France had available for intervention in Spain would be equipped with older vehicle types like this P16 half-track. Spain had originally chosen this for their army's mobile division, but had instead opted for the Bilbao in the end. In many respects the French Army of December 1938 was one small step more advanced than that of Spain in 1936. 
If you are a Star Trek fan, you will probably grasp a reference or two in this post. The Spanish Civil War, nor indeed the 1930s themselves, could hardly be described as a utopia, yet there still might exist a universe in which things were not only significantly different, but potentially worse. I would not like to commit to defining where this 'Alternate Spanish Civil War' would fit into a scale of good to bad however; it will however be different.  

The real Spanish Civil War ended on the 1st April 1939, a mere three months after the beginning of this scenario. Effectively the spirit of the Republic had already been broken with the failure of the Ebro Campaign in November 1938. On Christmas Eve 1938, the Nationalists launched an offensive into Catalonia and by 10th February all of Catalonia was in Nationalist hands. Britain and France recognised the Franco Regime as the legitimate government of Spain on February 27th. On March 28th Madrid was seized and the following day the Republic capitulated and Valencia was taken.

This scenario begins with the start of the Nationalist offensive in the Winter of 1938-39 and takes the line that increased tensions between Catalonian Centrists, the Anarchists, and the Communist-dominated Republican Government, results in a coup in Barcelona. The first act of the Generalitat of Catalonia was to declare Catalonia an independent state and to appeal to the League of Nations to support its right to self-determination.

It was an opportunity that Daladier had been waiting for and France did not only recognise the state, but also put into motion its plans for intervention. Sufficient forces still existed as many of the units that had been mobilised during the Munich Crisis were still under arms. While there was criticism from the French Right, it was largely negated by the damage it would cause to 'Spanish Communism' and by a very vocal Pro-Catalan lobby in the South of France. The League of Nations discussion on the matter would continue for months, but Daladier hoped to present a fait accompli in short order.

The Esteleda is the traditional flag of separatist or republican Catalonia, as opposed to the Senyera, which just has the stripes and no triangle or lone star. It is believed to have been based on the Cuban Flag after it became independent from Spain. Almost certainly the Catalonian Republic would have used this design, while the French probably used the Senyera as identification markings alongside their own tricolour.  
Shattered Mirror

The temptation when forming a French force of this era is to immediately think of using the latest French equipment in service at that time; Char B tanks and Lorraine carriers for example. Reality bites however and in this time of heightened anxiety as regards a general war in Europe, the best equipment would have been retained in France for potential use against Germany. Possible Italian responses would also mean that the Franco-Italian Border could not be denuded of troops either.

A Force of four divisions is equivalent to two French Army Corps and while I have yet to discover the actual formations earmarked for the operation, it might not be too difficult to guess. There is a large community of 'French Catalans' living in the departement of the Pyrénées-Orientales and in those areas adjacent to it. French Basques were also extremely sympathetic to the Catalans.

The French Army had several divisions drawn from the South of France and the interior, as well as the units of Pyrenean Mountain Troops. North African and Colonial Divisions also had to provide elements to be based within France. To minimise public outcry, those colonial troops and the men drawn from those communities favourable to the operation, would have been priority attachments to the task force.

In terms of hardware the majority tank would have been the Renault FT by far, with much smaller numbers of the Renault R-35 light tank. Reconnaissance units employed the AMR Schneider P 16 and either the Laffly AMD 50 or 80, or Panhard 165 armoured cars. Less likely options are the Char D1, that might be deployed from Tunisia and Hotchkiss H-35 tanks that might replace some P 16s, but something like the Somua S-35 is quite a stretch to include, but not impossible.

The options are however quite favourable given the opposition, who have a third of their strength formed from captured T-26 and FT tanks, while the remainder are Panzer I and CV-33/35 lights. A few captured BA-6 armoured cars and various MG-armed vehicles compare favourably with those of the French too. In all neither side will have any great advantage with regards to equipment.

From a more practical point of view, this Pre-War force is a very good match to what the Vichy French would later field in Syria in 1941 and in North Africa during Operation Torch in 1943. So even if you balk at building a force purely for this or any similar Interwar scenario, they will do double duty in WWII, or vice-versa.

I would have liked to include British forces in this scenario, but it would involve an abrupt policy volte-face by the government. There might actually be more chance of them fighting for Franco instead of for the Catalans, that's how remote the possibility. If such things do not matter to you, the paucity of the British 'toy box' at this time might. Forget the Cruisers and Matildas, even the Mk VIb lights. At best the various two-man lights and possibly the venerable 'Vickers Mediums' are as good as it gets; and a good back story would be required for those to be spared.    

Vichy French identification markings conveniently match Catalonia's red and yellow stripes and could well have been adopted as an identifier in this fictitious intervention.