The beginning of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936 caught the Nationalist side unprepared, with many of its troops stationed in Spanish Morocco and the Republican side controlling the sea through the Spanish navy. The Nationalists sought Adolf Hitler's support, and on 26 July 1936, Hitler began to provide clandestine military aid to them by airlifting troops to Spain from North Africa. Initial support included 10 Ju-52 transports, a handful of obsolete biplane fighter aircraft, some 88 mm antiaircraft artillery, and crews.
The Ju-52s soon began the first major military airlift in history, and together with Italian aircraft, they transported more than 13,000 troops of General Francisco Franco's Army of Africa from Spanish Morocco to Spain between July and October 1936. The German biplane fighters, however, proved no match for the Republican side's Soviet fighter aircraft. In October, Hitler decided to increase the Luftwaffe presence in Spain, resulting in the official formation of the Kondor Legion in October 1936. Eventually, the legion numbered more than 5,000 "volunteers" and fielded more than 100 aircraft of various types. But a total of 19,000 men and 300 to 400 planes served in the legion over the course of the war, and the Kondor Legion was made up of regular German military units, not volunteers.
The relatively poor performance of the legion's biplanes against the Republican fighters led the Germans to employ them in a ground-support role, essentially as flying artillery. This move was instrumental in the development of Luftwaffe doctrines of close-air support for ground operations. Kondor Legion aircraft hammered Republican troop lines just before Nationalist troops assaulted, while the Germans simultaneously struck enemy rear areas to prevent reinforcement. These tactics proved key in a number of Nationalist ground victories.
The legion employed the most advanced German aircraft as they became available, including the Heinkel He-111 bomber and the Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter. The legion also field-tested new aircraft, such as the first Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive-bomber, and it experimented with new combat techniques. The legion became notorious in 1937 for its "carpet bombing" of the Basque city of Guernica.
By 1938, the Nationalists secured air superiority. The Legion quickly appeared on any front required, with its support relocated via train and air transport. Its 88 mm flak guns, originally sent to provide air defense, eventually became the backbone of Nationalist artillery batteries, serving as highly mobile field artillery. Certainly, the Kondor Legion was an important factor in the Nationalist victory. Success, however, did not come without cost: some 330 members of the Kondor Legion died in Spain, and approximately 1,000 were wounded.
Some of the Luftwaffe's leading fighter aces, such as Adolf Galland, received their baptism of fire with the legion. The Luftwaffe adopted much of the legion's organization and tactics for World War II, particularly in ground-support and psychological operations. Jeffrey W. Stamp
Drum, Karl. The German Air Force in the Spanish Civil War (Kondor Legion). Manhattan, KS: Sunflower University Press, 1983.; Elstoh, Peter. Kondor Legion. New York: Ballantine Books, 1973.; Proctor, Raymond L. Hitler's Luftwaffe in the Spanish Civil War. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.; Ries, Karl, and Hans Ring. The Legion Kondor. Trans. David Johnston. West Chester, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1992.
Jeffrey W. Stamp