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The Spanish Civil War: Design Notes #3:
The War of the Michelin Maps

The Spanish Civil War was fought over one of the most mountainous countries in all of Europe. Other than the plains of Castille and the valleys of the Ebro and Guadalquivir rivers, most terrain in Spain is rough or hilly. These topographical facts alone would make the conflict a unique one. The sparse presence of a road and rail net in 1936 would serve to make the conflict an even more interesting affair.

There is excellent defensive terrain present throughout Spain and thus everywhere on the TSCW map. Some bloody attrition battles were fought over rough and mountain terrain: Teruel, the Ebro, the offensive on to Biscay, the Maestrazgo offensive, etc.

Despite of the abundance of good defensive terrain, the fronts were long and convoluted, so in certain secondary sectors (Extremadura, Aragón, Castille) troop density had to be necessarily low to allow the forming of a “mass of maneuver.” For example, even in later stages of the war Franco’s Nationalist army had to cover a long and convoluted frontline of almost 2000 km with 800,000 troops. By comparison, the Allies defended some 850 km of western front (during World War I) never with less than 1.5 million men.

Terrain was helpful but in many sectors there were no continuous front lines. Given that the road net was sparse, armies concentrated on defending road junctions (located at towns and cities.) This was usually enough to stop an enemy offensive, especially a Republican one. The front lines in those sectors resembled that of the Eastern front of WW2- no continuous front but a network of strong points defending the few key road junctions, with the spaces in-between being patrolled by both armies. At the battles of Brunete or Gandesa (during the Ebro offensive), the Nationalist defenders concentrated on defending the corresponding road junction town while awaiting the cavalry to arrive as reinforcements. At Gandesa and Brunete they arrived; at Belchite they did not.

The supply rules in TSCW help to simulate this as the units are automatically in supply when in a town or city but exert ZOC that leaves enemy units OOS if they move beyond that city or town hex: players will tend to concentrate on defending towns and cities to stop the enemy advance. Players will notice also that there are no forest hexes on the TSCW map. Woods or forest terrain is incorporated in the rough and mountain hexes. There are very few flat and forested tracts of land in Spain. Most of the flat areas in the peninsula are windswept steppes such as central Aragón, Northern or Southern Castille.

Another interesting fact about the SCW was that operations of the first months were conducted without adequate tactical maps (in general the maps used by artillery and infantry in the world wars should be scale 1:20000 for the artillery and 1:50000 to 1:10000 for the infantry.) That is, the Military Cartographic service of the pre war army had not yet mapped the peninsula, Balearic, Canary Islands and the Moroccan Protectorate when the war broke out, so more often than not columns had to "maneuver" and plan their offensives using Michelin road maps (At least they knew where the good restaurants were).

The interesting exposition in the Cartographic Institute of Catalonia in Barcelona, 1936-1939: Los Mapas en la Guerra Civil Española in January-March 2007 gave lots of insight about the problems caused by the lack of reliable maps when conducting military operations during the early stages of the SCW. The lack of good tactical maps meant that the offensives were completely roadbound, hence the importance of defending road junctions. Even at Guadalajara the recently arrived Mussolini Expeditionary Corps used the Michelin guide to plan its offensive, with predictable results. Republican staff officer Colonel Vicente Guarner called the operations of the early stages of the SCW “The War of the Michelin Maps.”

Referring to maps and cartography, the Nationalist had also a great advantage during the mid and later stages of the war because the Italian Volunteer Corps (the CTV) came with a complete cartographic section (Sezione Topocartografica) which was put to work quickly. They printed and distributed more than 500.000 maps at the 1:20000, 1:50000 and 1:20000 scales. The photo reconnaissance section of the German Legion Kondor was also of great help for the Nationalist cause. The Republicans on the other hand, had the Cartographic centre and most printers in their zone at the beginning of the war. However, this initial advantage was somewhat cancelled by the initial chaos in their zone and the lack of qualified personnel (most of the officers and military cartographers sided with Franco.) Still, towards 1938-39 the Republicans managed to print a sizable number of good quality maps.

Terrain and Mechanized Warfare

The armies of the Spanish Civil War were basically infantry armies. However, there were a few forays into motorized warfare: that of the Italian CTV at Guadalajara in 1937 (actually the Italians attacked with a motorized convoy rather than a mechanized force) and that of the Republican attack at Aragón in October 1937. This attack was called “Operation Moscow” and consisted of the Republican infantry riding Soviet-style BT-5 tanks. Both of these ended in failure. In general, the limited armour was used in an infantry support role. The terrain of Spain and the lack of a sophisticated road net truly limited mechanized force effectiveness, much like what the American Army experiences in Italy in WW2. In The Spanish Civil War game armoured units did not have organic infantry and/pr artillery attached. This is manifested in armoured units having a very low defensive rating: armour units are strong on the attack and have good movement allowances but if caught alone in a hex they’ll suffer the consequences.