The Black Shirts

The Black Shirts were Italian fascists who fought with the Nationalist Army during the Spanish Civil War. group occupied Majorica in August 1936 and ruled the island for several months before being ousted by the Republican Army.

By the end of 1936 there were 3,000 members of the Black Shirts in Spain. They took part in the fighting around Madrid and participated in the fall of Málaga in February 1937. By this time their numbers had increased to 30,000. There were also 20,000 members of the Italian Army fighting in Spain.

The Italians also played a prominent role in the offensive at Guadalajara. Mussolini insisted that his forces should be used as a single unit. General Francisco Franco was unhappy about this as he wanted the Italians dispersed among his own Spanish units.

On 8th March over 35,000 Italian soldiers and 81 whippet tanks and a company of machine-gunners, went into action at Guadalajara. The Italians failed to breakthrough on the first day and on the 9th March the Republican Army reinforced the frontline with over 20,000 soldiers.

The Republicans held the Nationalist for over a week before launching its own counter-offensive on 18th March. Using its best troops, including the International Brigades, the Republicans were able to force the Italians to retreat.

During the failed offensive at Guadalajara, the Italians had 400 killed, 1,800 wounded and had 500 men taken prisoner. The Italians also lost significant quantities of arms and supplies, including 25 artillery pieces, 10 mortars, 85 machine-guns and 67 trucks.

General Francisco Franco blamed the Italians for the Nationalist defeat and banned them from operating again as an independent unit in Spain. He insisted that in future the Italians would have to operate in larger units made up primarily of Spanish troops and commanded by Spanish generals.

The Black Shirts eventually left Spain in November 1938.

Primary Sources

(1) The Manchester Guardian (20th February 1937)

Further detachments of Italian troops arrived last week in Spain just before the prohibition of volunteers came into force. Their total strength is estimated at about 10,000, so that there are now at least 70,000 Italian troops in Spain. Some 5,000 French volunteers also succeeded in reaching Spain just before closing time.

Amongst the war material shipped to Spain from Italy this month was a consignment of 100 Caproni bombers, which arrived in an aircraft-carrier. It does not seem that any Russian volunteers or war material have reached Spain during the last few weeks. Instead, it would seem that Russia has given up her intervention altogether.

All figures relating to numbers of troops - whether Spanish or foreign - in Spain are conjectural, but as far as can 'be judged at the moment there would seem to be between 30,000 and 60,000 volunteers on the Government side and between 80,000 and 100,000 on the rebel side, the latter, of course, bring supplies with an incomparably superior armament.

(2) Katharine Stewart-Murray, the Duchess of Atholl, wrote about visiting Spain in 1937 in her autobiography, Working Partnership (1958)

At Valencia the first thing we saw was one of the schools for refugee children, which showed clearly the interest in education taken by the Republican government. Next came a visit to a prison for political prisoners, until lately occupied by the present President and Prime Minister.

The prison consisted of a large well-lit building with a central hall from which radiated staircases to various galleries. Outside these there was a good-sized gravelled recreation ground in which some fifty men were standing about, looking well clothed and fed. We were allowed to call out for men who could speak French or English, and any who could do so were hastily pushed forward. In reply to our questions they said that little was wrong with the food, and that letters and gifts from friends were received regularly. The only complaint made to us was that no visitors had been allowed for a month.

In another prison we visited, two hundred Italian prisoners-of-war, Mussolini's so-called 'volunteers', were confined. We were allowed to talk to them freely and we asked them how they came to be here. Several replied that they had thought they were being taken to one of the Italian colonies. Others had come with their own officers, as a regiment. When we asked them how they were being treated, several ran off to fetch samples of the bread they were getting, which they obviously found satisfactory. They looked well cared for, and happy to be out of the fighting.

(3) Resolution passed by the British Battalion on 27th March 1937.

We the members of the British working class in the British Battalion of the International Brigade now fighting in Spain in defence of democracy, protest against statements appearing in certain British papers to the effect that there is little or no interference in the civil war in Spain by foreign Fascist Powers.

We have seen with our own eyes frightful slaughter of men, women, and children in Spain. We have witnessed the destruction of many of its towns and villages. We have seen whole areas which have been devastated. And we know beyond a shadow of doubt that these frightful deeds have been done mainly by German and Italian nationals, using German and Italian aeroplanes, tanks, bombs, shells, and guns.

We ourselves have been in action repeatedly against thousands of German and Italian troops, and have lost many splendid and heroic comrades in these battles.

We protest against this disgraceful and unjustifiable invasion of Spain by Fascist Germany and Italy; an invasion in our opinion only made possible by the pro-Franco policy of the Baldwin Government in Britain. We believe that all lovers of freedom and democracy in Britain should now unite in a sustained effort to put an end to this invasion of Spain and to force the Baldwin Government to give to the people of Spain and their legal Government the right to buy arms in Britain to defend their freedom and democracy against Fascist barbarianism. We therefore call upon the General Council of the T.U.C. and the National Executive Committee of the Labour party to organise a great united campaign in Britain for the achievement of the above objects.

We denounce the attempts being made in Britain by the Fascist elements to make people believe that we British and

other volunteers fighting on behalf of Spanish democracy are no different from the scores of thousands of conscript troops sent into Spain by Hitler and Mussolini. There can be no comparison between free volunteers and these conscript armies of Germany and Italy in Spain.

Finally, we desire it to be known in Britain that we came here of our own free will after full consideration of all that this step involved. We came to Spain not for money, but solely to assist the heroic Spanish people to defend their country's freedom and democracy. We were not gulled into coming to Spain by promises of big money. We never even asked for money when we volunteered. We are perfectly satisfied with our treatment by the Spanish Government; and we still are proud to be fighting for the cause of freedom in Spain. Any statements to the contrary are foul lies.