Monday, 31 August 2015

The Pre-War Spanish Military
Infantry Battalions

Soldiers practice firing drill on their parade ground. Their helmets seem to be a mix of the M.1921 (left foreground) and the M.1926. The difference between them is that the earlier type does not have the the more prominent angled sides and rear and tends to look less 'German' than the later type. Rifles are also a mix of the 'long' Mauser (centre rear) and the 'short Mauser (foreground right). The squad is using the strip-fed M.1922 Fusil-Ametrallador.

The infantry battalion was the manouvre group of the Spanish army and the fusilier companies (Compañías de Fusileros) that formed it were its tactical elements. The Republic's reductions in the size of the standing army impacted the battalion at all levels. Firstly the number of battalions per regiment had been reduced from three to two and a 'depot battalion'. Secondly each battalion saw one of its fusilier companies reduced in the same fashion. Thirdly each company had one of its three platoons (secciones) also reduced to cadre strength.

The battalion's support assets were also not spared and the machine gun company was reduced to two platoons from four. The two battalion mortars were reduced to one in peacetime, but the battalion did receive a single 70mm infantry gun from those mountain batteries that were disbanded. Combined with customary practices regarding conscripts' service, in July 1936 most units were at only 60% of their peacetime strength, itself only 75% of the wartime one.

The painful truth was that even if the peacetime standard had been maintained, there were simply not enough weapons to outfit the entire army. There was no shortage of rifles, but a considerable number of weapons were Remington Rifles, or Winchester Carbines (as opposed to the civilian model still made and on sale in the '30s), introduced prior to the adoption of the Mauser system in the 1890s. Many of the Mausers dated from this period too. The best and newest weapons went to the Army of Africa, or to the current crop of conscripts, those in store tended to be older.

What were lacking were automatic and support weapons. The 70mm guns received from the mountain batteries had been new at the turn of the century, with some having been used in the Rif War. While the old M.1926 Lafitte 60mm medium mortars were to be replaced by a new 81mm Brandt design, few had been issued (298). Production of the new 50mm platoon mortar had reached 1,680, but 1,864 were immediately required and 3,588 were required on full mobilisation. Many of these light mortars had yet to be actually delivered to their units.

Stocks of the M.1914 Hotchkiss machine gun (and other types, such as the Maxim and Colt types) were sufficient for the peacetime structure with 1,856 weapons against a need for 1,654, but for the wartime structure a further 822 were required. The two light machine guns, Hotchkiss M.1922 and M.1925, were in very short supply, with only 1,334 weapons, against a requirement for 2,814 for the peacetime structure and 4,576 for the wartime one.

All things being equal the distribution of weapons by proportion would have not created a serious problem, but the Army of Africa's units received its full quota of weapons (they were after all on active service), while the Peninsular units shared what remained. In terms of the 'typical' platoon therefore, only one of its sections might possess its regulation light machine gun and few platoons would possess one light mortar, let alone the two the structure demanded.

The Fusilero Battalion

The organisational structure of a Spanish Infantry Battalion was almost identical across all arms of service. Only La Legión and the Regulares differed to any meaningful extent and these will be covered in a future post. The 1933 reforms to the battalion are shown in the diagram below.


The machine gun battalions were organised for the most part like the infantry battalions, at least with regard to its support services. Its complement of companies was reversed however and it had four machine gun companies (three in peacetime) and one company of fusileros. Like their counterparts in the infantry battalions, each machine gun company had two active secciones of machine guns, with two en cuadro and the fusilero company had two active secciones and one en cuadro. Unlike the fusilero battalions however, there was no gun and mortar sección.

Estado Mayor

The Battalion headquarters was composed of three elements. The Headquarters element itself contained a Teniente Coronel (Lieutenant-Colonel) as the battalion commander, with a Comandante (Major) as his second in command. A Teniente (Lieutenant) was the battalion executive officer, with an Alférez (Ensign) who was theoretically the unit standard bearer.

There was a Communications Platoon, which as might be guessed handled communications both outside of the battalion and internally. A Teniente commanded the unit, which was formed into two pelotones, each under a Sargento (Sergeant) and each consisting of twelve enlisted men. The first pelotón manned and operated the unit's two field telephones and provided 'enlaces' ('runners') for both the headquarters and the units of the battalion. The second pelotón was composed of linesmen and other technicians. Two mules were provided to carry the unit's equipment.

The battalion's supply train was essentially a composite of both the battalion staff, as well as the support and supply elements that might be expected in a unit of this size. The unit was actually carried as part of the regimental train, but in practice was divided between the constituent battalions of the regiment. It was commanded by a Brigada (Sergeant First Class or Sergeant Major) and besides containing the Battalion Trumpeter or Bugler, also contained an Armourer-Sergeant, a Farrier-Sergeant, various clerks, the battalion kitchen and its staff, as well as handlers for the 14 wagons (or 13 mules), which formed the battalion transport.   

Sección de Máquinas de Acompañamiento





General Walter with Republican troops 
and an Arellano gun at Belchite in 1937. 
The wheels could be angled towards each 
other, to provide a gun shield.



The Sección de máquinas de acompañamiento (essentially 'Mortar and Gun Platoon') contained the battalion's two mortars (only one of which was issued during peacetime) and the 'battalion gun' (Schneider 70/16 M.1908). It was customary when operating within a brigade or division to detach that weapon, so as to allow a light artillery battery to be formed. While nominally under the battalion command, it was usual to group the unit under the Machine Gun Company.

While there were sufficient of the antiquated 70mm guns to equip the formations needing them, the relatively new mortar designs were a different matter and there were insufficient to equip all of the infantry battalions. The total required was in the region of 350, but only 160 were required on the peacetime organisation. In stocks (including the older Brandt-Stokes mortars), there were a total of just under 300. In those formations which didn't have the new mortars, the Valero 60mm M.1926 mortar, which the 81mm was intended to replace, continued in service.

It had been recognised that the army possessed no anti-tank capability and a decision had been made to remedy this. Whether as a platoon in each battalion, or as a 'brigade company', a new weapons, the 40mm 'Arellano' M.1933 had been put into production. The individual platoons were to be composed of two sections, each serving two weapons. 

The weapon was first deployed by rebels in the Asturias against troops led by the weapon's designer. It is impossible to determine how many of these weapons, if any actually made their way to units, but they do appear during the Civil War, which presumes that some indeed made their way to their intended units.

The Mortar and Gun Platoon was led by a Teniente and the gun section and mortar section was each led by a Sargento. The Gun Section consisted of a Cabo (Corporal) and eight Soldados, all serving a single Schneider 70/16 M.1908 infantry gun. The Mortar Section was theoretically composed of two Escuadra, each serving a single Valero 81mm M.1933, or perhaps more commonly, the Lafitte/Valero 60mm M.1926 Mortar the Valero was to replace. However on the peacetime standard, only one Escuadre was actually activate. The Sargento controlled both squads, which were each to be led by a Cabo, with seven Soldados for each tube. One Soldado from each team was designated an Explorador-Observador (Observer-Scout) and both worked as a single team to identify targets for the mortar section. To carry the weapons and their ammunition, 12 mules were provided.

Schneider 70/16 M.1908 infantry gun being manhandled into action in Morocco.

Valero 60mm M.1926 Mortars in use in Morocco during the 1920s.

Compañía de Ametralladoras

The Machine Gun Company was intended to provide massed machine gun fire to its parent battalion and was designed to be deployed as a whole 'heavy company', rather than have individual platoons detached to support the fusilero companies. This practice was maintained following the Republic's reforms, when the Machine Gun Company was reduced from its previous four platoons, each with four weapons, to only two active platoons. With the loss of a fusilero company too, the unit's place was now in the second line of the battalion, to provide fire support to the two leading battalions. This practice derived from experience gained in Morocco with the La Legión and the Regulares, who had been operating at what was now the 'peacetime structure' for some time.

The Company Headquarters was headed by a Capitán (Captain), supported by an Alférez and a Brigada. The company had its own Bugler, as well as between eight and eleven other enlisted men, serving as servants to the officers, runners, clerks and similar duties. The Tren de Combat (company supply platoon) consisted of 45 mules and 30 enlisted ranks serving as handlers, saddlers and other related duties.

Both of the active Machine Gun Platoons were identical, with a headquarters of a Teniente or an Alférez and a Bugler, 2 Platoon Scouts, 2 mules and their handlers for the baggage and a stretcher bearer team. Each Sección was divided into two Pelotones (Sections), each led by a Sargento. Each of the Pelotones were divided into three Escuadra, one of riflemen and two of machine guns. The rifle squad consisted of a Cabo and 4 Soldados, while the machine gun squads consisted of a Cabo and five Soldados, who all served the squads's machine gun, or handled the squad's two mules.

A machine gun company's Hotchkiss M.1914 machine guns lined up for target practice. In combat the dispersion between weapons would have been more pronounced. 

Compañías de Fusileros

The three fusilero companies left to each battalion after the reforms, formed the 'tactical' elements of the battalion, as opposed to the support and reserve function of the machine gun company. The peacetime establishment required the equivalent of an additional whole company exist as a cadre formation and this was achieved by reducing the number of secciones (platoons) in each company to two, rather than the usual three. The fourth company existed as a 'depot' formation (en cuadro), which allowed the army to retain its full complement of officers and senior non-commissioned officers.


The Company Headquarters was the same as that of the Machine Gun Company, with a Captain in command. While the supply train and company staff stayed at a similar level, the number of mules attached for the transport of ammunition and equipment was only twelve animals. The two rifle secciones, consisted of a headquarters element, consisting of a Teniente, a bugler, two exploradores (scouts), two mules and their handlers and a stretcher bearer team.

Each of the two rifle sections (pelotones) were led by a Sargento and were composed of three Escuadre. The first of these consisted of a cabo, a rifle-grenadier and 4 fusileros, with the squad members all carrying grenades for the rifle-grenadier. The second consisted of a cabo and five men, who all served the squad's light machine gun. The third consisted of a cabo and five fusileros, two of which were designated as 'hand grenade experts', with the squad carrying a supply of grenades for them to throw in the assault.

The issue rifle was invariably one of the models of Mauser rifles, licence built in Spain. The most common type was still the Mosquete 7mm Mauser M.1893, but there were also considerable numbers of the Mosquetón 7mm M.1916 ('short' rifle) available too. The Fusil-Ametralladoras issued were either the Hotchkiss 7mm M.1922, or the Châtellerault M.1925 (French designations; the Mle. 1922 and Mle. 1924). The gunner and the 'first assistant' carried pistols, either the Astra 400, or the older Campo-Giro M.1916 which the Astra replaced.

The Spanish used two main hand grenade types; the 'light' Lafitte mod.1921 and the 'heavy' Tonelete mod.1918. Spain had also produced its own rifle grenade, the Granada de Fusil Llamada de Rabiza Comisión de Experiencas Modelo 1913. The grenade was a rod-grenade which damaged the bore of the weapon firing it. As a result the oldest rifles were used by the rifle-grenadiers, which were effectively useless for normal shooting.

Despite there being sub-machine guns available, none appear on the various equipment lists for the army's units. Both the Guardia Civil and the Assault Guards issued such weapons, as did the Prison Service (along with repeating shotguns and other unusual weapons). Star SI-1934 and SI-1935 weapons, firing the powerful '9mm Largo' cartridge, had been in production for a year, but had yet to be accepted for use by the Army itself.

As part of the modernisation process of the army, the rifle grenade was to be replaced by the Valero 50mm M.1934 light mortar. Rather than have one per section, the decision was made to have them in a separate mortar section, either operating as a single fire-support element for the platoon, or attaching the component teams to the sections. This led to a modified platoon structure.



The platoon headquarters was reduced to just the Teniente and the corneta, along with the two platoon mules and their handlers. Except for the light machine gun squad, which was reduced by one man, the other two squads were now simply 'rifle teams', but still had 'designated' hand-grenade experts. The new mortar section added a '1st Sergeant' (Sargento-Primero) to the platoon, who commanded the two new mortar squads. Each squad consisted of a cabo and 4 fusileros who served the mortar and tended the mule supplied for the ammunition. Each team now had one of the platoon scouts, who were now trained to spot for the mortars on top of their normal scouting role, although they probably still worked as a two-man team.

How far the change to the new structure had been implemented by July 1936 is difficult to ascertain. As the Nationalists adopted a two-mortar section at company level, rather than at platoon level, implies that some mortars were issued before the Civil War, although perhaps only for training purposes. The Republic used the weapons in quantity, apparently having both stocks of weapons made, plus producing them during the war itself. From the outset the new 'Popular Army' had either one or two in each platoon, a feat which could not have been achieved in just six months without stocks. Perhaps like the Arellano gun, the weapons had been stockpiled ready for issue.

Infantry deploy in the streets of Barcelona during the 1934 'Revolt'. This looks to be a complete infantry section, complete with light machine gun. Note the officers riding boots, every officer within a battalion was mounted and a horse was carried for them on the battalion strength for this purpose.