The realisation that the numerous Popular Militia battalions were not up to the task of defeating the Nationalist Army became apparent very soon after the initial weeks of the coup. While they may have been sufficient in dealing with the initial disorganised coup, once the Nationalists had begun to consolidate their hold on the territory surrounding the areas they held and the African Army Corps units had begun arriving in force, what were essentially armed civilians were not going to be sufficient. The reverses of the first few weeks brought this message home in no uncertain terms.
While a pragmatist might not be alarmed by the numbers of people killed, given the population available to draw on, the loss of territory and the subsequent ‘White Terror’ which followed, added to the losses already suffered amongst the Republic’s supporters. From a strategic perspective the often precipitate retreats by the militia columns also resulted in the abandonment of valuable and scarce weaponry, particularly machine guns and artillery, and which the milicianos had often not thought to destroy or disable in the process. Losing the weapons was one thing, gifting them to the enemy was essentially twice the loss.
From August 1936 plans were being made to form a new ‘Popular Army’, the Ejército Popular de la República (EPR), the leaders of which would be suitably vetted for their political sympathies and in which the troops would be instructed in political ideology as well as more martial matters. At the same time a department was established to oversee the militias, the Inspección General de Milicias (IGM), whose role was to oversee both supply and provisioning of the various formations, but also to begin the process of militarization within those same units. While either the CNT or the POUM, amongst others would not engage with the militarisation process, the other parties and factions did.
The Communists were already engaged in a similar process with their 5th Regiment in Madrid, but working with the IGM, they now had the opportunity to expand that programme across the whole Republican Zone, not least amongst the various communist and affiliated foreign volunteers who were arriving in considerable numbers in Catalonia and who would later form the famous International Brigades.
It was to be October before the first battalions were formed from new volunteers and those formations not currently in the frontlines. The initial structure for a battalion was to be three rifle companies and a machine gun company, with a fourth rifle company acting as a depot unit to train replacements for the other companies. Each company was to follow the pre-war organisation at its ‘war establishment’ (i.e. three platoons) and where possible it was to have its full complement of automatic weapons and mortars.
Despite the influx of Soviet and other weapons (which initially were somewhat obsolete, even by Spanish standards) there were still shortages. The effort was made to provide at least one light machine gun and at least one light mortar per platoon, for each platoon in the rifle companies and at least two medium machine guns per platoon in the machine gun companies. In many cases weapons provided were often of different types and calibres which made supplying any formation with ammunition a logistical nightmare. By mid-1937 however most units were equipped with their full complement of weapons (mostly of the same type) however and the less useful items were confined to the shortly to be disbanded CNT and POUM units outside of the EPR structure.
Support at battalion level received a small boost by the allocation of; firstly an additional infantry gun and subsequently by the removal of those weapons and the expansion of the two-weapon medium mortar section into a full platoon of four weapons. The Republic in fact put a lot of effort into producing mortars for its army, a weapon the Nationalists appear to have placed little value on.
Between mid-October and December 1936 individual battalions were to be grouped by fours into the first six Mixed Brigades (Brigadas Mixtas), to which were also to be attached an artillery group of four field artillery batteries (typically three of 75mm and one of 105mm guns). In practice this often resulted in the field batteries utilising the now spare 70mm weapons alongside the other weapons. Engineer, supply and similar units were also integrated into the brigades, along with a ‘motorised scout squadron’ (essentially a motorised rifle company), but which was often replaced by a mounted infantry unit or cavalry unit instead.
A further forty four brigades had been formed in the Madrid area by Spring 1937 and a further thirty two on the East Coast between Andalucia and Catalonia. By May 1937 there was a total of 153 Brigades in the Aragon and Central (Madrid) Zones. In the North there were a further thirty six brigades, made up from Basque, Popular Militia and the remnants of Loyalist Army units that the Basques had not disbanded when the Republic had done so. Many of these units were not actually ready to be put into the line however and lacked both training and weapons.
Presumably there were some difficulties providing the full complement of support weapons and services once the process was rolled out across the whole army, as in November 1937 a fundamental change was made to each brigade. The service units were reduced in size and the scout squadron was reduced to platoon size. The artillery group was also reduced, so as to form ‘divisional artillery’ units, leaving a single battery of two, three or four 70mm infantry guns, if they were available (apparently there were only 64 surviving ones at the end of 1937) for the brigades own use. The battalion machine gun companies were disbanded and a single brigade machine gun company (organized the same way as the previous battalion companies), replaced them.
The battalions were now composed of four rifle companies (with the same organization as before), but with only a two-weapon medium mortar section once more. Anecdotal evidence and photographs suggest that, the individual machine gun sections (two weapon Squads) within the brigade machine gun company could be attached to individual infantry battalions or companies as required, at the discretion of the brigade commander. With only eight weapons in the brigade instead of the previous thirty two, it is a far more efficient use of them, as opposed to a single massed battery trying to cover four battalions.
Divisions had begun to be formed shortly after the first mixed brigades had been established. Each division was supposed to contain three of the mixed brigades, the third of which was to be provided with a five vehicle armoured car platoon, with the division also having a reconnaissance group of three cavalry squadrons. Three divisions were the usual sub-units of a Corps, to which was to be added a cavalry brigade of two regiments, various field and heavy artillery groups (which were to be assigned to support divisions as required) and additional supply and other support services. A varying number of corps formed an army, which eventually had its own battalion of T-26 tanks, in addition to the independent armoured brigades that were deployed where needed.
Largely cut off from the rest of the Republic, weapons and equipment had to be sent by sea to the North. This resulted in much of its equipment being of a lower standard than elsewhere, but in spite of this an armoured regiment was formed by mid-1937, consisting of 20 T-26 Tanks, 22 Renault FT (mixed roughly 50% guns/machine guns) and 20 Trubia-Naval ‘Basque’ Tanks. In addition they received around 50 FA-I and 100 BA-6 armoured cars. Unfortunately for the Republicans, most of these vehicles fell into the hands of the Nationalists when the North collapsed in late 1937.
This list can be used to field a Republican Infantry Platoon for the period October 1936 until April 1939, with some overlap with the Popular Militia list until mid-1937, particularly with regard to the CNT and POUM. It can also be used for Basque units after mid-1937, when it is generally accepted that much of their fervor and enthusiasm had been knocked out of them by bitter experience.
Homage To Catalonia
While Catalonia had not fully subscribed to the ‘Mixed Brigade’ concept until after May 1937, it had formed three (later four) divisions as early as 1936, using the ‘named’ militia columns already existing. The CNT and POUM columns had refused to militarise and were forcibly disbanded, with their surviving men spread across the existing and new EPR formations mentioned above. At the same time two CNT columns which had been sent to Madrid, were also disbanded and their men re-assigned. The Popular Militia List is the best army list to represent CNT and POUM forces prior to their disbandment.
Here is the list for the Ejército Popular de la República: CoC – EPR
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