The Rise and Fall of an Infamous Marxist Icon
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first three chapters of this series we looked at Hitler’s conversion to Marxism, his rise to the leadership first of the KPD and then of Germany itself, his transformation of Germany into a Communist state, and his aggressive expansion of the German armed forces as he sought to expand Communism’s reach throughout western Europe. In this installment we’ll remember the exploits of the Rosa Luxembourg Brigade in Spain and chart the sequence of events leading to the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.
The KPD propaganda machine went out of its way to play up the Rosa Luxembourg Brigade’s arrival at the Spanish port of La Caruna in August of 1936, calling it the greatest German military enterprise since the 1812 national rebellion against Napoleon. Though the brigade’s troops had yet to fire even a single shot in anger, Goebbels and his minions in the German press acted as if they’d already won the Spanish Civil War singlehanded. What Goebbels wasn’t keen to publicize was that additional German troops, along with pro-Madrid volunteers from other countries, were infiltrating Spain by crossing the French border disguised as common tourists; braggart though he was, he knew that if he disclosed too much too soon it might undermine the Communist bloc’s efforts to thwart the Franco-Sanjurjo insurgency.
Knowing that the Volksmarine’s surface forces weren’t yet strong enough to challenge Italy’s Mediterranean fleet for control of the Mediterranean, Hitler had them concentrate on securing Spain’s Atlantic ports; the Volksmarine was not entirely absent from the Mediterranean theater, however, as its U-boats began harassing Italian vessels in the waters off the Balearics and the Canary Islands.
The first direct confrontation between Luxembourg Brigade troops and Spanish Nationalist guerrillas came on September 3rd, 1936 near the outskirts of the northern sectors of Madrid. The Nationalists expected to have an easy time with the mostly young Luxembourg Brigade recruits, with one Nationalist battalion commander predicting the battle would end in less than an hour with a decisive victory for his side. Nearly seven hours later, however, it was the Germans who had won the day using the unconventional tactics they had learned from officers who’d fought in the trenches of the First World War.
In the skies, the Brigade’s aerial auxiliary, the Einsatz Geschwader Stuckart1 was giving Nationalist fighter planes a hard time. Heinrich Stuckart took a great deal of pride in this unit, not only because it bore his name but also because he’d helped oversee the training of most of its pilots. A keen amateur flying enthusiast since his early teens, Stuckart had been one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Volksluftkorps and thus took considerable interest in all aspects of its operations.
Three weeks after the Luxembourg Brigade’s baptism of fire the first Volksluftkorps bombers started arriving in Spain. Their initial task was to support the Brigade’s operations on the battlefield, but before long Hitler’s general staff figured out that the bombers could also be used to strike at strategic targets behind the front lines-- targets such as a general’s command post, for example.
On November 15th, 1936, the bombers attached to the Luxembourg Brigade conducted their first strike on a Spanish Nationalist command/ control installation, hitting the field headquarters of Nationalist battalion chief Col. Jose Moscardo, who’d been a thorn in Madrid’s side practically from the hour the first shots had been fired in the Spanish Civil War. Bombsights then weren’t as accurate as they would become in later years, but the German bomber crews’ aim was good enough to land a half-dozen direct hits on Col. Moscardo’s command bunker, killing Moscardo himself and seriously injuring most of his senior staff.
By January of 1937 Communist and socialist volunteers from other countries were fighting alongside the Luxembourg Brigade in Spain, and Stalin had gone from supplying money, weapons, and advisors to the Madrid government to directly committing Soviet combat troops to the war-- a development which many in the West found disturbing, since it strengthened Moscow’s influence with the Spanish socialists. What disturbed them even more was how the strength of German naval forces guarding Spain’s Atlantic ports was steadily improving...
The Luxembourg Brigade and its aerial auxiliaries faced their most critical test of the war on May 16th, 1937, when Nationalist infantry and armored battalions attacked the town of Guernica, which both the Nationalists and the Madrid government considered to be of vital strategic importance. Both sides knew that if control of the northern port could be yanked from Madrid’s hands, it would be a huge feather in Franco’s and Sanjurjo’s caps.
The battle for Guernica marked the operational debut of a dive bomber that would go on to strike terror in the hearts of infantrymen and civilian refugees throughout Europe-- the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka. But in its maiden campaign, the new dive bomber proved to be almost as deadly to her own crews as it was to the enemy; in fact, at least one- third of the German air casualties sustained in the battle were Stuka crews killed when they were unable to pull out of a dive in time and their planes crashed.
German naval power had somewhat better luck at Guernica; Volksmarine U-boats picked off Nationalist warships and supply vessels at every opportunity while surface ships like the destroyer Friedrich Engels and the battlecruiser Rote Sterne2 lent offshore fire support to the troops of the Luxembourg Brigade and their Spanish socialist allies. The Rote Sterne in particular inflicted huge casualties on Nationalist troops thanks to batteries that possessed, as an American folk singer would put it nearly a quarter-century later, "shells as big as steers and guns as big as trees".3
On May 24th, eight days after the battle for Guernica began, the battered remnants of the Spanish Nationalist assault force began to retreat southward, government forces pursuing them every step of the way. It was a great tactical victory for the Madrid government-- and a validation of Germany’s restored status as a bona fide major military power. If Hitler’s European neighbors hadn’t been nervous before, they certainly were now; even the United States, still shackled by post-World War I isolationism, was starting to realize that she might sooner or later have to confront the DDVR.
By August of 1937 Franco and Sanjurjo’s rebellion was beginning to crumble. The Madrid government, and their Soviet and German allies, had dealt it many telling blows on land and sea and were steadily chipping away at its air power as well. The Luxembourg Brigade, whose manpower was now augmented not only by foreign volunteers but also by Volksarmee regular troops, had long since squashed any doubt about its effectiveness as a fighting unit and was being held up as a model for future German expeditionary forces.
Also distinguishing himself on the Spanish battlefront around this time was Colonel General Georgi K. Zhukov, commander-in-chief of the Soviet combat troops in Spain. Zhukov, a former Czarist cavalry officer who’d gone over to the Communists during the 1917 October Revolution, had assumed command of the Soviet expeditionary force after the previous C- in-C, Semyon Budenny, was dismissed for incompetence. Stalin, who saw Zhukov as a protégé, had placed great faith in the general’s ability to outfight the Spanish Nationalists-- and Zhukov had rewarded that faith time after time as he dealt Franco and Sanjurjo a series of heartbreaking defeats.
But his greatest victory was still to come; in the fall of 1937, in a four-pronged surprise assault whose opening day happened to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution, he struck at Spanish Nationalist troops occupying Seville. Backed up by a battalion of Volksarmee artillery and three Spanish air force attack squadrons, his troops ripped through the Nationalist defenses like a tornado, clearing them out of most of the city within 48 hours after the offensive began and taking the rest of it from them after just another 12 hours. The loss of Seville was a severe blow to the Nationalist cause; General Franco and his comrades had pinned their last hopes for taking Madrid on the men of their Seville garrison, and now Zhukov had for all intents and purposes dashed those hopes.
After Zhukov’s victory at Madrid, the Spanish Nationalists were irrevocably on the defensive; their Italian allies continued to furnish them with money, troops, and weapons but it wasn’t enough to stem the socialist-Marxist tide. General Franco’s efforts to enlist other foreign states in his cause came to nothing: France was politically divided; the Netherlands and Belgium clung to strict policies of neutrality; Denmark was essentially a vassal of Germany; Japan and China were too busy making war on each other to care about far-off Spain; and Britain hadn’t yet finished rearming herself. As for the United States, it was, as has been previously mentioned, still partly in the grip of isolationism, and even if it hadn’t been many Americans hated Franco just as much as they hated Hitler and Stalin if not more....
In January of 1938 Stalin rewarded Colonel General Zhukov’s conduct of the battle of Seville by promoting him to full general and bestowing him with the title of Hero of the Soviet Union-- the first of five such times Zhukov would be accorded this honor. He then appointed the newly made general as overall C-in-C for Soviet military forces in the Pacific; having been impressed by Zhukov’s handling of the war against Franco, Stalin believed he was the perfect man to direct the Red Army’s impending campaign against the Japanese empire, code-named Operation Typhoon. Fed up with having his Siberian frontiers constantly menaced by the Imperial Army, the Soviet dictator had made up his mind to eliminate that problem by the use of force.
Stalin’s immediate goal was to push the Japanese out of Manchuria and short-circuit any plans they might have for attacking Siberia; his long- term objective was to wear Japan down so that the home islands could be invaded once resistance in Manchuria had been eliminated. Following the conclusion of hostilities with Japan, he intended to abolish the monarchy and create a "Japanese People’s Republic" subservient to Moscow.
The vanguard of the invasion forces for Operation Typhoon would be a mix of eager young recruits and battle-hardened veterans of the Spanish Civil War; all the branches of the Soviet armed forces were keen to take the lessons they had learned in Spain and apply them to the battlefields of Asia. This was especially true of the Soviet air force, which had been entrusted with the task of bombing critical Japanese military and command targets prior to the invasion.
Stalin and Zhukov knew that neutralizing Japan’s air arm would be no small task; by virtue of their combat experience against China, Japanese fighter pilots were every bit as aggressive and well-trained as their Soviet counterparts, and their planes enjoyed a distinct if shrinking technical advantage over most Soviet fighter aircraft. Furthermore, many of the Japanese air bases in Manchuria and on the home islands were out of range of existing Soviet bombers and the Red Navy had next to nothing with which to counter Japan’s deadly and still-growing carrier armada.
The dilemma facing Zhukov, and by extension Stalin, was whether to mount a surprise attack on the Japanese occupation forces in Manchuria now and hope to catch Tokyo asleep at the switch, or hold off until the Soviet armed forces had better combat aircraft, by which time Japan might be even stronger and inflict harsher retaliation for any invasion of Manchuria. To buy himself more time to solve this problem, and lull the Japanese into a false sense of security, Stalin sent his foreign minister Vycheslav Molotov to Tokyo in February of 1938 to open non-aggression pact talks.
By no means did the Soviet expeditionary forces in Spain slacken in their war against the Nationalists after Zhukov’s transfer to the Pacific theater; in fact, under Zhukov’s successor, the tough and stocky Ukranian Ivan Koniev, they fought Franco and Sanjurjo’s rebels more fanatically than ever. Koniev had long ago sensed that the Nationalists were on the ropes and he was eager to deliver the knockout blow the first chance he got.
The Luxembourg Brigade also realized that the Nationalists were ripe for the plucking, and had been given free rein by Hitler to step up their ground and air offensives against the beleaguered insurgents. The Stuka, overhauled by German aviation engineers, had overcome most of its initial teething troubles and was establishing itself as the Volksluftkorps’ premier tactical ground attack aircraft; the Heinkel 51 biplanes that had formerly been the backbone of Einsatz Geschwader Stuckart’s fighter units were giving way to a swift and nimble monoplane, the Messerschmitt Bf109.
On the ground, Luxembourg Brigade infantry and armored elements were combining with Volksarmee regular troops to hack away what was left of the Spanish Nationalist army. Tactics that would later be used in the DDVR’s conquest of western Europe were tried and perfected, as were the next generation of German land weapons systems. At sea, the Volksmarine’s surface fleet was much stronger than it had been when the Germans first intervened in Spain, and its U-boats were bagging merchant ship kills left and right, picking up where their forefathers had left off in the First World War.
Having ensured the imminent defeat of one European foe, Hitler started preparing for the day when he would be ready to confront another, Benito Mussolini. The DDVR dictator had long ago promised to support Engelbert Dollfuss in any future wars between Italy and Austria-- and Hitler looked forward to making good on that pledge. In contrast to the formidable Japanese armies that would confront the Soviets in Operation Typhoon, the Italian army was at best comic relief; not only was it fighting a losing battle in Spain, but its only other previous foreign campaign since Mussolini took power had been against Ethiopia, a country whose military was so far behind the times that some of its infantrymen used spears to resist the Italian invasion of their country in 1934. Hardly adequate preparation for a showdown with the burgeoning strength of Communist Germany.
But the ever-arrogant Mussolini took it for granted that Italy would crush the Austrians as easily as they had routed the unfortunate Emperor Haile Selassie; despite the concerns of his son-in-law and foreign minister Galeazzo Ciano that the Italian army wasn’t properly outfitted for a serious conflict with Austria or Germany, the Duce insisted on assembling troops along his northern border for an attack up the Brenner Pass. He foolishly thought that such an offensive might catch the German-Austrian alliance off guard and distract them from the fighting in Spain, thus allowing the Spanish Nationalists to regain the upper hand in Spain.
The Duce would soon be proven tragically wrong on that score....
...but in the meantime the Luxembourg Brigade, its Volksarmee and foreign auxiliaries, and their Soviet allies were focused on aiding the Spanish socialists in eliminating the remnants of the Nationalist army. Jose Sanjurjo had been killed in late February of 1938 when his personal plane was shot down by German fighters, leaving the overly cautious Francisco Franco in sole command of the rebel forces; by then all but the most fanatical Nationalists had given up hope of capturing Madrid and Franco’s tattered divisions were retreating across the banks of the Guadalquivir River.
In western Andalusia Volksarmee regular troops, backed up by foreign volunteer brigades from Europe and North America,4 were clearing out the remaining Nationalist insurgent cells there; many clergy and landowners killed themselves rather than fall into leftist hands, and some others sought political asylum at the British colony of Gibraltar. The Madrid- Berlin-Moscow alliance enjoyed almost total control of the air in most parts of Spain; in the Mediterranean a combined German-Soviet naval task force had assembled off the Balearics and was preparing to deal the Italian navy’s surface fleet a shattering blow.
On March 14th, 1938 three German Deutschland-class pocket battleships and four Soviet World War I vintage Gangut-class battlewagons confronted a large Italian naval squadron led by the battleship Roma off the island of Ibiza. The German ships were the first to open fire, and before long the two flotillas were pounding away at each other in what would prove the biggest naval battle fought in European waters since Jutland. The engagement lasted 36 hours, during which time both sides suffered grave losses in both ships and men; in the final analysis, however, the German- Soviet side’s numerical advantage would make the crucial difference, and the battle ended on March 16th with a Communist victory as the remnants of the Italian squadron retreated to the safety of the naval base at Taranto.
On March 19th Spanish marines backed by Soviet armor landed on Ibiza and recaptured it from the Nationalists after only a token struggle; within 24 hours the commander of the Nationalist garrison on Majorca surrendered without firing a shot, and 12 hours after that Nationalist troops on Minorca did the same.
The final major land battle of the Spanish Civil War began on April 4th, 1938 in the historic Andalusian fortress city of Granada. Legend has it that when a Volksarmee colonel asked Spanish socialist general Jose Miaja which of his four columns he intended to attack the Nationalists with first, Miaja answered "the fifth column"-- a reference to pro-Madrid infiltrators who would mount diversionary hit-and-run assaults on the Nationalist rear flank just before the government armies began their main offensive.
The diversionary raids started coming around 6:00 AM; singlemindedly focused on crushing what he misjudged as a localized uprising against Nationalist control of the town, Franco was caught unawares when German and Soviet divisions struck at his northern and eastern flank and Spanish government troops assailed his defenses in the west. By the time he knew what was really happening, his northern perimeter had been breached and his men were locked in a bitter house-to-house struggle with Volksarmee infantry and panzers.
Just after 2:30 PM that afternoon Miaja’s mounted troops, in one of the last great cavalry charges in military history, breached Franco’s southern flank and linked up with Soviet infantry units in the eastern districts of Cordoba. With his few remaining fighters locked in a death struggle with German aircraft and his armored corps nonexistent, the Spanish Nationalist leader’s fate was sealed; early that evening, the last pockets of Nationalist resistance were broken and Franco was taken prisoner along with most of his surviving senior command staff.
The Spanish Civil War was over. Now, Hitler mused as he and his Marxist allies basked in the glow of victory, it was time to settle accounts with Italy...
To Be Continued
1Special Air Group Stuckart.
2German for "red star".
3From the song "Sink The Red Star" by Johnny Horton, copyright 1961 by A&M Records.
4There were even some Asians fighting on Madrid’s side; Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese Communist guerrilla strategist who later masterminded Vietnam’s successful war for independence, was attached for several months to a French Communist militia unit.