Franco’s International Brigades FAQ

fib-shelfCrusading Catholics, foreign Fascists, and Muslims with a grudge. The Spanish Civil War set right against left when centuries of grievances erupted into a bloody settling of accounts in 1936. The left-wing volunteers who came from around the world to fight for the Spanish government are well known but foreigners also joined the other side. I wrote a book about it. Here’s a FAQ.

Q. What was the Spanish Civil War?

A. In July 1936 a cabal of right-wing generals tried to overthrow the Spanish government by force. The generals believed the recently elected hard-left government was speeding the country towards anarchy and Marxism. The government saw the generals as Fascists. The overthrow was meant to be a short, sharp coup d’etat, over in a few days. Instead the country was plunged into a bloody and divisive Civil War that lasted three years.

The generals and their supporters were known as Nationalists. By October 1936 they were under the command of General Francisco Franco, a minor figure in the original conspiracy who beat out other candidates thanks to the strength of his power base in Morocco. The Spanish government and its supporters were known as Republicans. The government’s members were a revolving door of politicians from different left-wing factions, often at each other’s throats.

Franco and his Nationalists received material support from Hitler and Mussolini. The Republic received material support from Stalin’s Soviet Union. In addition 40,000 young men from all around the world volunteered to fight for the Republic in the International Brigades, military units organised by Moscow.

My book Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War is about the hidden side of foreign intervention in the Spanish Civil War. It is about foreigners who fought for Franco.

Q. How Many Fought For Franco?

A. Approximately 183,000 foreign men fought for Franco’s Nationalists. Only some were volunteers. Hitler sent the Condor Legion – 15,000 German pilots, gunners and tank crews. They were professional soldiers who had no say in the matter but were often happy to get a taste of real warfare. They arrived in November 1936.

Mussolini sent 80,000 Italian troops who began to arrive in December. Some of these were volunteers (Mussolini even opened recruiting centres around Italy) but that reserve soon dried up and the majority were conscripts or regular soldiers. Il Duce also ordered the drafting of any physically impressive party members to make a good impression on the Spanish.

Seventy-eight thousand Moroccans fought. All were volunteers. They are controversial even today as many Republican supporters like to claim they straight mercenaries who fought purely for money. In truth Moroccans fought for a variety of different motives, from politics to religion, and the majority had no previous military experience.

A further 8,000 Portuguese from Dr Oliver Salazar‘s Catholic state joined the Nationalists, as did at least 3,000 other volunteers from around the world (British, Australian, Russian, French, Irish, Polish, Argentinean, Belgian, Norwegian etc).

Q. How Does That Compare With the Republic?

A. The Republic mustered approximately 40,000 international volunteers from as many as 50 countries. About 35,000 of these fought in the International Brigades, while the rest were found in Anarchist or POUM militias. In addition a small number of non-volunteer Soviet tank crews and pilots fought for the Republic. The biggest single national contingent in the International Brigades was 8,500 Frenchmen (who shared a border with Spain) but there were volunteers from as far away as Brazil and China.

The 183,000 foreigners on Franco’s side is more than four times as many as fought for the Spanish government. Winston Churchill, then a backbench MP in his wilderness years, called foreigners on both sides “armed tourists”. But let’s compare like with like. How many actual volunteers fought for Franco?

The Portuguese and other internationals were all volunteers. That makes approximately 11,000. All the Moroccans volunteered but if we ruthlessly prune out the minority with prior military experience and whose main objective was money (i.e. those who could be classed as mercenaries) that leaves us with a minimum of 50,000. A minority of the Italians were genuine volunteers. Any figures would be guesswork as Italian paperwork made no differentiation between conscripts and those there of their own free will. Somewhere between 10-20,000 seems likely. Some Italians also enlisted independently in the Spanish Foreign Legion.

That gives a total of close to 80,000, roughly twice as many as fought for the Spanish government. That figure becomes more solid if we apply the same standards to the other side and strip out the 4-5,000 in the International Brigades who were exiles in the Soviet Union when the Civil War began and were ordered to Spain by Stalin – hardly volunteers. An unknown minority of the Brigaders were motivated by money and had previous military experience. No-one likes to use the term ‘mercenaries’ about the International Brigades but they were promised 10 pesetas a day, to be paid by the Republic. They rarely got it.

All things considered a ratio of 2:1 foreign volunteers in favour of Franco seems likely.

Q. Why Are Franco’s Volunteers Not Better Known?

A. Both sides had reason to conceal the number of foreigners fighting for the Nationalists. Franco claimed to be a patriot fighting for the soul of the ‘true Spain’. He did not want to admit he needed foreign assistance. The Republic did not want to admit their hated enemy had international support from anyone other than from fellow megalomaniacs Hitler and Mussolini. These attitudes continued after the war when Franco and Republican exiles both doctored the history books.

Q. Why Did Men Volunteer For Franco?

A. Franco’s volunteers were motivated by a variety of different reasons: politics, money, religion, adventure, escape. But some national groups had specific reasons for signing up.

Morocco was a protectorate of France and Spain in 1936. Technically still under the control of Sultan Mohammed V, the country was effectively run by the western powers. Money was a powerful draw in the impoverished territory but some Moroccans with less materialist concerns thought that by proving their loyalty to Franco’s cause he would grant independence when he won. A grave miscalculation as Franco was an imperialist to his bones. Others believed they were fighting a jihad against atheist Communists in Madrid.

General Franco's International Brigades Book Cover (Spanish Edition)There were other reasons. During the rising Arab men met in the small, cool cafés of Tetuán, capital of Spanish Morocco, to drink sweet mint tea, smoke a bubbling hookah, and talk about the conflict across the water. In lulls from more serious conversation good talkers could raise a laugh from their companions with a popular story about a fellow countryman who joined General Francisco Franco’s army on the mainland but was captured by Spanish government soldiers.

The Spaniards’ commander interrogated the prisoner. What was he doing in Spain? Why was he involved in a conflict that did not concern him?

“I have always fought for my ideals,” replied the Moroccan with great dignity.

The commander was impressed by the prisoner’s obvious sincerity and rather than have him shot gave the man a job in the field kitchen. Later the same day the commander toured the front lines and saw the Moroccan with a rifle in his hands firing on rebel positions.

The outraged commander dragged the Moroccan out of his trench and accused him of fighting for Franco one day and against him the next.

“You have no ideals at all!”

“My ideals have always been the same,” said the Moroccan, again with great dignity. “To kill Spaniards”.

European volunteers tended to see Franco as a saviour of the Right (not necessarily Fascism). They were often religious in their motivation, although some had specific political concerns. General Eoin O’Duffy formed his Irish Brigade with the ambition of generating publicity in Ireland that would return him to the political centre stage after a series of set backs. Many of his men, however, were in Spain because of their religious faith. The news that thousands of religious figures had been murdered in Spanish government territory during the early months of the war outraged Irish Catholics. Poles and Frenchmen shared their feelings with special intensity but it was a common source of outrage to Catholics across the world.

The 450 South and Central Americans (most Argentineans and Cubans) who fought for Franco shared a pride in their nation’s historical ties with Spain. Right-wing, they saw those ties as being torn apart by the Spanish left. White Russian exiles saw the civil war as a chance to sharpen combat skills they would need when they drove the Communists out of Russia.

Money and adventure appeal to men from all cultures. It is unlikely the 100 volunteers from Spanish Guinea or the handful of Turks in the Spanish Foreign Legion had political motivations.

We will perhaps never know why a Jewish volunteer from Palestine served in the Legion but it worth remembering that despite Nazi Germany’s racism it was not until 1938 that Fascist Italy adopted anti-Semitic measures. Prior to that some Italian Jews were enthusiastic Fascists and a few held high office. Some fought in the Italian forces that aided the Spanish Nationalists. But that is to over-think it. Not everyone fits a stereotype. The volunteer’s motivations are lost.

Q. Were Franco’s Volunteers Fascists?

A. A third of the International Brigades belonged to the Communist parties of their respective nations. A further 4-5,000 were Communist exiles living in the Soviet Union. This Communist activity on the Republican side encourages many to believe that Spain was an ideological war in which Fascists must have been in the majority among Franco’s foreign soldiers. An understandable position when we consider that Franco’s main supporters were Hitler and Mussolini – but not really correct.

Those volunteers among the Italian forces came from a Fascist country and some must have been party members or sympathisers. But the Moroccans were not Fascists – their world view revolved around Islam and nationalism. Of the remaining volunteers Fascists were in the minority.

All the main Fascist groups of Western (and probably Eastern) Europe told their members not to fight in Spain. Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, announced that ‘Spain is not worth one drop of British blood’. Quisling in Norway, the Legion Nationale in Belgium, Doriot’s Parti Populaire Francaise, echoed those sentiments, as did far-right Poles. All shared the apocalyptic belief that a civil war (or, in the case of the Poles, foreign invasion) would soon strike their home nations – so they were duty bound to stay and fight.

Some Fascists still went to Spain. Two members of Mosley’s BUF joined the Falange (Spain’s Fascist party and key allies of Franco) in the early months of the war. Around 50 members of Belgium’s Legion Nationale went to Spain. Most of the 300 strong French Jeanne d’Arc company which fought in the Spanish Foreign Legion were from the right-wing Parti Social Français party, although it was more hardline Conservative than Fascist at this time. A clause in their enlistment contracts allowed them to return home if civil war broke out in France. Two Romanian Fascists of the Iron Guard died at Majadahonda in 1937. And Per Imerslund, a fanatical Norwegian Nazi, fought in the Falange. Imerslund, a troubled bisexual, was disillusioned by what he saw as Franco’s reactionary clericalism and did not stay long in the front lines.

Most of the non-Moroccan, non-Italian volunteers were Conservatives, Catholics, or both. Some, like Englishman Peter Kemp who fought in the Carlist monarchist militia and then the Spanish Foreign Legion, actively disliked Fascism. The volunteers believed they were fighting for the Right and for Religion, a reactionary old-fashioned Right that could take Fascists as allies but disapproved of their radicalism.

Foreigners could enlist, at least in the early months, in the Foreign Legion, the Fascist Falange militia, and the monarchist Carlist militia. The Falange was the least popular destination for foreign volunteers.

Q. Could Franco Have Got More Volunteers?

A. The International Brigades had a worldwide support network funded by the Soviet Union that transported volunteers to Republican Spain from as far away as America. Franco’s foreign recruitment network was limited to Morocco and, on a lesser scale, Portugal.

General Franco's International Brigades Book CoverThe Nationalists squeezed as much as they could from Morocco. By January 1937 they had 50,000 Moroccans in their ranks. But the supply of North African men prepared to fight soon dried up, many frightened off by the sight of disabled war veterans. In the remaining two and a half years of the war only another 28,000 would volunteer. The Nationalists could not have got more Moroccan troops with resorting to conscription, an act illegal in what was technically Mohammed V’s sovereign state and likely to cause an armed uprising.

Recruitment in Portugal was low key at Salazar’s request. The Portuguese leader had been badly frightened by a September 1936 naval mutiny that erupted after the army announced the creation of a volunteer Viriatos Legion to fight for the Nationalists. The mutiny aborted the volunteer effort but at Franco’s request Salazar allowed discreet recruitment to take place, primarily because the Portuguese leader believed whoever won the civil war across the border, right or left, would invade his country and wanted to establish good relations to prevent that happening. He also managed to retain diplomatic relations with the Republic for the first months of the war. Presumably a full scale public recruitment drive could have attracted more than the 8,000 volunteers who fought but Salazar, anxious to keep an appearance of neutrality, would never have allowed that.

Italy had its own recruitment network but could not get enough volunteers and had to conscript most of its troops. Any independent Spanish recruitment effort would have been a waste of money. Germany supplied carefully chosen professional soldiers but limited their numbers to avoid too much antagonising of the democratic powers. A Spanish recruitment effort amongst either the armed forces or civilians would have been impossible in Germany.

Elsewhere, Franco could have had many volunteers but failed to create the infrastructure to take advantage of pro-Nationalist sympathies, particularly in Europe.

“Having decided to join the Nationalists I had no idea how to set about it,” said British volunteer Peter Kemp. “Had I wished to join the International Brigades there would have been no problem; in every country there were organisations to attract volunteers. But the Nationalists showed no interest in recruiting in Britain”.

Potential volunteers for the Nationalists had to make their own way to Spain – not cheap, especially for those with oceans to cross – and faced an uncertain welcome. Carlists sent Belgian right-winger Paul Kehren back across the border in the autumn of 1936 when they discovered he wanted to join their rivals, the Falangists. Two Irish pilots who offered their services in late 1937 were arrested as spies.

We can never know how many more volunteers the Nationalists could have attracted if they had made serious recruitment efforts around the world. Two home grown volunteer networks in Ireland and France give the best idea of what a Franco sponsored International Brigade would have looked like. But predicting potential volunteer numbers from them muddies the water further as both had very different results.

Ireland was the only place outside Morocco and Italy where any kind of open recruitment for the Nationalists took place. With the support of newspapers and town councils nearly 2,000 men volunteered for General Eoin O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade. Only 700 made it to Spain, where their performance under whelmed observers, but they outnumbered the 150 who fought for the Republic.

On the other hand equally Catholic but far more politically divided France may not have had public recruitment but did share a border with Spain. It was easier for volunteers to get to the battlefield and underground domestic recruitment networks existed for both sides. Around 8,500 joined the International Brigades, the largest national contingent, but only 500 fought for Franco, including 300 in the all-French Jeanne d’Arc company.

So how many more volunteers could Franco have got? Is it unrealistic to say that for every one volunteer who made his own way to Spain another nine would have gone if transport costs had been paid for them? Five? Four? The cost of getting to Spain was a major barrier to many potential Franco soldiers. Early in the war Greek Jorge Stefanatos wrote to Franco’s HQ in Burgos offering to make his own way to Spain – but only if they reimbursed him afterwards.

When the Soviet Union, by then an ally of Hitler, invaded Finland in November 1939 230 British volunteers joined the Finnish Volunteers, a private army funded by a relative of US President Roosevelt and approved by the UK government. They were right-wingers, adventurers, and those looking for escape from civilian life – just the kind of men who might have fought for Franco if the opportunity had been there. The Finnish Volunteers saw no action and most were marooned in Scandinavia for the war but they were still approximately five times the 40-50 British volunteers for Franco.

Perhaps a minimum of 10,000 volunteers from Europe, America and South America would have fought for the Nationalists alongside the Portuguese, Moroccan and Italians if Franco had made the effort to recruit them.

Q. Did Franco Want More Volunteers?

A. The Nationalists did not have the funds for foreign recruitment and, unlike the Soviet Union’s relationship with the Republic, neither Germany or Italy showed any willingness to offer financial aid for that purpose. But regardless of the economic barriers it seems Franco decided early on in the war that foreign volunteers – with two major, and one minor, exceptions – were unnecessary.

The civil war was a coup attempt that went wrong. When the right-wing generals realised their plan to take the major cities would not work they had to improvise a new tactic. They held most of the north under General Mola, the architect of the coup, and Spanish Morocco under Franco. Elsewhere Nationalist territory was spotted like patches of mould through land held by the government. Mola and Franco both raced for Madrid, believing that taking the capital would fatally wound the Spanish Republic.

Franco+final1Mola had plenty of troops but not much in the way of aeroplanes and munitions. Franco lacked troops and aeroplanes. He rectified the former by recruiting Moroccans as shock troops and, once in mainland Spain, Portuguese to strengthen the Spanish Foreign Legion, his military powerbase. Mola’s only nod towards foreign manpower was to allow the Carlists a trip to Ireland where they suggested an Irish Legion to General O’Duffy.

Both men approached Fascist Italy for aeroplanes and munitions. Franco also approached Nazi Germany when it seemed Mussolini had turned him down. The Fascist powers eventually agreed to help but did so only through Franco (who had the advantage of good local contacts) to avoid factionalism. Italian and German aeroplanes carried Franco’s men into Spain. Subsequent victories allowed Franco to achieve overall control of the Nationalist forces on 1 October 1936. He demonstrated his disinterest in more foreign units by cancelling an Italian volunteer legion the same day. O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade, not yet in Spain, was also given the cold shoulder (Franco suggested Irish volunteers should make their own way to Spain “in small groups”) and only arrived because its leader chartered his own ship.

Although Franco’s war effort would be closely associated with German and Italian units, neither was his choice. The Condor Legion was imposed on Franco by Hitler in the belief that advanced German technology would bring the failed coup to a quick conclusion. It did not. Franco accepted the Legion in the autumn of 1936 as it provided a ready made air force, his main military weak spot. He was less sanguine when the first of what would be 80,000 Italian troops arrived in the winter of that year. He had not asked for them and did not need more troops. Mussolini was under the mistaken impression that Fascist manpower would succeed where Nazi aeroplanes had failed.

Franco had even less interest in the several thousand foreign volunteers who entered the country, most in the first six months of the war, and found a place in the Spanish Foreign Legion, Carlists, or Falangist militia. It was only in the Spring of 1937 when the Irish Brigade returned home after a disappointing performance that he would actively try and form a foreign volunteer unit.

The Nationalists had been fencing with the international Non-Intervention Committee for several months about the repatriation of foreign troops. Franco had no intention of losing his Moroccans or Portuguese and was not in a position to send home the Italians or Germans. But he licked his lips at the thought of the hole that would be put in the Republic’s forces by the withdrawal of the International Brigades. To achieve that he needed to offer his own sacrificial foreign unit in exchange. He had considered the Irish for that role but when they left was forced to approve another unit. The French Jeanne d’Arc company was created directly after O’Duffy and his men departed.

The men of the Jeanne d’Arc remained unaware of the reason for their enlistment because the Non Intervention Committee’s deal quickly fell through. They would fight on until the end of the war.

By the summer of 1937 Franco’s disinterest in foreign manpower became absolute and he refused offers of volunteer legions from Belgium, Greece and Russian exiles in Paris.

The International Brigades themselves would eventually be sent home, a shadow of their former selves, in November 1938 in a unilateral gesture by the Republic. The order apparently came from Stalin to smooth relations with Hitler, soon to be his new ally.

Franco’s foreigners fought on to the bloody final battles. Their reward was to be wiped from Spanish history books and popular culture, remembered elsewhere only as lackeys of Fascism, men forever chained to a decomposing corpse.

To find out more about foreigners who fought for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War read my book:

Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War [or]

Or for more warlike weirdness, you can buy my  other books in paperback or ebook:


Lost Lions of Judah: Haile Selassie’s Mongrel Foreign Legion [or]


Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World  [or]


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