Wednesday, 3 August 2016

The Pre-Civil War Spanish Military Infantry Battalion Headquarters

A squad of well turned-out fusileros in the M.1926 'winter' uniform. Puttees to just under the knee were worn over the distinctive 'granadero' trousers on exercise or in action and the leather shoes replaced by canvas alpargartas (a sturdy type of espadrille) in the Summer. All of these troops carry the Short Mauser 'Mosquetón M.1916', as opposed to the longer 'Mosquete M.1893', which was still in service.
If the infantry brigade was the manoeuvre group of the Spanish Army, the infantry battalion was the principle manoeuvre element. While the various types of battalion might differ slightly in terms of manpower within their support echelons, the fighting elements; the rifle companies, machine gun company and the integral support weapons, did not. As the Republican Government rolled out its reforms during the Early Thirties, even distinctions like the variation between the numbers of companies between 'African' and 'Peninsular' battalions was removed. Besides the cut-backs there was actually an attempt made to modernise the infantry in the process too; the extent to which this had been achieved is hard to determine however.

In 1930 a Peninsular Battalion consisted of four rifle companies and a machine gun company. The fourth rifle company was subsequently disbanded, only retaining key personnel who acted as the depot staff of the battalion. To these men fell the task of providing initial training for each influx of conscripts, before they were posted to the other companies of the battalion. The units of the Army of Africa had been formed in this way for some time and so were spared this streamlining. As an additional measure each of the rifle companies in the Peninsular Battalions also lost one of its three platoons (secciones), effectively reducing each battalion by an additional company's worth of men in the process.

The practice of generous leave entitlements for those conscripts living within a day's travel of the barracks, along with releasing some men in their final year of service and additional leave for the Summer period, reduced numbers even further. On the evening of 18th July 1936 it would be a fortunate battalion that could muster two full-strength rifle companies. Even with mass conscription, for a period of time many regular units operated at strength that was much lower than their notional 'paper' one.

Each battalion had possessed two 60mm Lafitte-Valero M.1926 medium mortars by the end of the Rif War and these were to be replaced by a new Valero 81mm model and licensed-built 81mm Brandt mortars. The peacetime equipment level only required a single mortar to be operational, with another kept in store. Exactly how many of the 298 mortars produced by July 1936 had been delivered and how many were lying in store in their factory, is difficult to ascertain. 

When the 70mm mountain batteries had been disbanded, each infantry battalion had received a single Schneider 70/16 M.1908 gun, as a 'battalion gun'. While a useful weapon, especially when 'brigaded' into ad-hoc 'regimental' batteries, it was also recognised that the Spanish Army possessed no formal anti-tank capability and the Schneider was not up to that role.

Subsequently the 40mm Arellano M.1933 was developed, a dual-purpose weapon, but no decision was reached as how best to deploy this weapon. While some weapons were issued to units, many of them were stored at their factory. This was where rebels found them during the Asturias Revolt of 1934, promptly turning them against Government troops, led by the weapon's designer, Captain Arellano.

All things being equal the respective shortages of the various weapon types should not have impacted as much as they were to. However as the formations in the Army of Africa were 'operational' as we would term it today, they were always fully-equipped to the wartime standard, which increased the effective shortage of weapons within Peninsular formations to around 50%. While this allowed for familiarisation and training needs, it further eroded the Army's readiness for war.

Batallón de Fusileros

With just some quite small variations, the various infantry types of the Spanish Army (as well as the Guardia Civil and the Carabineros) shared a common organisational structure. For the purposes of illustration the most common formation; that of the 'line infantry' or Fusileros, has been used here.

Estado Mayor

The Battalion Headquarters was composed of three elements; the staff, the communications platoon and the battalion train. The staff element itself was composed of just the officers leading the battalion. The battalion commander was typically a Teniente-Coronel (Lieutenant-Colonel), with a Comandante (Major) as his second in command. The battalion executive officer was usually a Teniente (Lieutenant) and there was an Alférez (Ensign) who was theoretically the unit standard bearer, but who would typically act as the Comandante's second. 

The Communications Platoon handled the battalion's communications internally and externally. A Teniente commanded the unit, which was divided into two pelotones (sections), 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 platoon's equipment.

The bugle was the principal means of communication within the battalion, through which quite complex signals could be sent to individual platoons. Communication between the battalion and higher command required more technical measures. While some units did have radios, the principal methods of communication were the heliograph and the field telephone. When these failed or were not otherwise suitable, the humble 'runner' was relied upon.
The battalion train was essentially a composite of both the battalion administration 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 devolved to 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

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'. It was customary when operating within a brigade or division to detach that weapon, so as to allow a infantry gun battery to be formed. While nominally the unit was directly under the command of the battalion headquarters, it was usual to subordinate its command to the commander of the machine gun company. The sección itself was led by a teniente and was divided into a Pelotón de canon and a Pelotón de morteros. Twelve mules and their handlers were provided for the transport of the entire platoon and its ammunition.

The cannon section was led by a sargento, with a cabo and eight soldados under him, serving a single Schneider 70/16 M.1908 gun. Some units had received the Cañón de 40/27 M.1933, but it is not clear if this actually replaced the Schneider in these units, although that had been the intent. Some 70 of these weapons had been produced by 1936, 17 of which were found to be on the Post-Civil War inventory of the Nationalist Army in 1939. General Walter was pictured with one at Belchite in 1937 and it can be imagined that as they were made in Oviedo, they were probably used more widely by the Republicans in the Asturias and Basque Regions than anywhere else.

Schneider 70/16 M.1908 infantry gun being manhandled into action in Morocco.
The mortar section was also led by a sergeant, but consisted of two mortar escuadras, only one of which was maintained on the peacetime template. Each escuadra was to consist of a corporal and seven soldados serving a single mortar. One of the soldiers was designated as an explorador-observador and working with his opposite number in the other squad, had the role of finding firing positions, identifying prospective targets and correcting the fire of the mortars. The original weapon of the mortar sections had been the Lafitte 60mm M.1926, or its licence-built and slightly modified copy, the Valero M.1929. In 1933 the new Valero 81mm M.1933 was introduced to replace both 60mm models. This process had apparently not been completed by July 1936, judging by the numbers of 60mm projectiles found on some Civil War battlefields.

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

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