The reputation of the Corpo Truppe Volontarie, the Corps of Italian ‘Volunteers’ sent by Mussolini to support the Nationalists, has probably suffered as much from Francoist propaganda and subsequent historical commentary based on that propaganda, as it ever did from Republican bullets. While the force did have its shortcomings, not least that they were not actually volunteers and in some cases not even soldiers, it was by far the most modern and best trained of the forces involved in the Civil War.
Despite Franco’s publicly low opinion of them and the extent to which he minimalized their contribution to his victories, Italian troops formed between 25% to 50% of the formations involved in any major Nationalist offensive between their arrival in early 1937 and the end of the Civil War. While he never publicly praised them, a sort of belated acknowledgment of their sacrifice, was given to them by placing an Italian unit at the head of the Victory Parade of 1939. The Condor Legion, the formation upon which so much ink has been used praising their over-rated contribution, brought up the rear of the 100,000 man parade.
At the time the Italian military doctrine was perhaps the most advanced in the World. The concepts of rapid advance (Celere) by motorised units, supported by artillery and close air-support, was ‘Blitzkrieg’ warfare before the term had ever been coined. Italy’s infantry had adopted a tactical organisation, which included the now-standard ‘trinary’ formations, now used almost world-wide, as early as 1929, as well as the idea of modular support elements and the formation of ad hoc battlegroups for specific missions and situations. It was however a tactical doctrine that by and large, its military was unable to operate to, due to the overall lack of motorized transport across the whole of its forces.
The CTV was lavishly equipped with motor transport by any standard of the time and was actually able to put many of these ideas into practice. The difficulty was that Italian doctrine clashed with Spanish Nationalist aims. In a typical war, rapidly moving offensives that took vast swathes of ground before the enemy could marshal its forces to counter-attack, would have been perfect.
Franco however wanted to take Spain inch by inch, removing any remaining trace of socialism, root and branch as he proceeded. What was more, he wanted to be seen to achieve the rebuilding of Spain and its people without outside help. It was to be a Reconquista that took Spain back from the Rojos (‘Reds’), achieved by true Spaniards. Mussolini on the other hand, wanted to be seen as the dominant man in the Mediterranean and Southern Europe, and it to be clear that Spain’s deliverance from ‘Communism’ could only possibly be achieved with his support.
For the Italian commanders therefore, besides struggling with Republican armies that were becoming increasingly more able and indeed well-equipped, they had to attempt to demonstrate that their victories were being achieved solely by the Italian Corps, while resisting Spanish attempts to divide their formations and to deploy their troops in wasteful operations, in which they would bear the brunt of the fighting and obviously the resultant casualties.
The initial use of the Italians was during the Andalucian campaign to take the Malaga, where the 1st MSVN Division, supported by the first of the tank units, proved more than adequate for the task ahead of it. While the brunt of the ill-coordinated and somewhat divided resistance was directed at the Nationalist forces advancing up the coast, the Italians still had some hard-fighting to do, across some quite poor terrain. Facing almost even numbers of enemy troops, the combined Spanish-Italian force was victorious. Franco played down the victory, not only because the Italians had largely been responsible for it, but also that the Spanish commander, Quiepo de Llano, the man who had taken Seville and created the bridgehead for the Nationalists in the South, was at risk of being seen as a potential rival to his position.
The next major action for the Italians was the Battle of Guadalajara, where despite atrocious weather, the Italians were able to create a 30km salient which threatened the route through which the Republicans were re-supplying Madrid. Despite a massive Republican counterattack and the well-known apparent ‘rout’ of the Italians (who were also supported by Spanish troops), there was still a somewhat smaller salient existing at the end of the battle. The Italians had taken heavy losses however and some troops had not proved up to the task. Franco made much of the apparent failure of the CTV and the whole affair was an embarrassment to Mussolini on the international political stage.
The reorganization of the CTV after Guadalajara led to the disbandment of two of the Blackshirt Divisions, whose men were used to replace losses in other units and the creation of the first mixed Italo-Spanish ‘Flecha’ (Arrow) formations. The rank and file of these formations was to be wholly Spanish, organized on the Italian model, with Italian equipment and Italian officers and training personnel. While the first such brigade was based on the Italian XXIII de Marzo independent motorised brigade, the two that followed were almost entirely Spanish. Each was later expanded to divisional size, with the added formations once more almost wholly composed of Spanish troops.
Both the two remaining Italian divisions (2nd MSVN and 4th ‘Littorio’) continued to make the same contribution to Nationalist successes as previously, but propaganda attention was now focused on the ‘Spanish Flecha’ formations, in line with Franco’s desire to depict the eventual Nationalist victory as a wholly Spanish Victory.
This list can be used to represent both the Regular Army formations within the 4th ‘Littorio’ Division and any of the MSVN Divisions forming the CTV. The list can also be used to represent the Flechas. The men of the Raggruppamento Repartí Specializzati (RRS), the Corp’s composite armoured brigade, when not broken up to act in an infantry support role, have their own list.
The list can be downloaded here: CoC – Italian CTV
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