By Richard Lucas
Tercio de Extranjeros of Morocco
The Spanish Moroccan territories were officially declared pacified in 1927. Colonel Millan Astray, the much-wounded, one-armed founder and commander of the Spanish Foreign Legion, was promoted to brigadier general and sent back to the Peninsula in semi-retirement. The Spanish Foreign Legion, Tercio de Extranjeros, formed at the beginning of the hostilities in eastern
Morocco, had grown from two tercios (regiments) created in 1920 to include several tercios and over a dozen banderas (battalions). The Legion, along with los Regulares, comprised what was to be referred to by the Spanish as the Army of Africa. The Regulares were native Moroccan troops enlisted into the Spanish Army and under the command of Spanish officers.
At the beginning the Spanish Foreign Legion was an idealistic concept, a dream of Millan Astray to create a military camaraderie of soldiers who would forsake home and family in search of glory and adventure. He sought volunteers who were prepared to fight and die for Spain and for each other. At the creation of the first bandera, his greeting to the newly enlisted legionnaires was ominous: “There is nothing finer than to die with honor for the glory of Spain, as you will soon learn.” Learn they did, as Legion casualties came to far outnumber those of other Spanish units deployed in the conflict which has come to be known as the “War of the Riff.”
During the seven-year conflict, Legion units had consistently been at the forefront of the fighting. From Millan Astray’s idealistic dream the Legion had evolved into a well trained, well equipped and experienced fighting force composed of battle hardened veterans. The Legion constituted the elite of the Spanish Army. With the end of open hostilities, in 1927 the First and Second Tercios settled into garrison duties in the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, the major cities in the Spanish Moroccan territories. Other units were sent to Spanish colonial possessions in the Spanish Sahara (today’s Western Sahara), the Canary Islands, Sidi Ifni, and to Spain’s African colonies such as Equatorial Guinea.
From its inception the Spanish Foreign Legion was to be “foreign” in two ways. It was “foreign” in that Legion recruitment was to be essentially open to foreigners who were supposed to make up the majority of the units; it was also “foreign” in the sense that it was to serve abroad, outside of the Spanish peninsula. Therefore potential recruits were sent to Ceuta or Melilla in North Africa for induction and training, later to be posted in one the remaining Spanish African possessions. The Legion carried out its duties in the overseas possessions for several years, deployed in convoy protection, border security and as simply being a dissuasive military presence. This was to change drastically when events on the peninsula drew the Legion into what was to be one of the world’s bloodiest civil wars and a testing ground for modern military technology and political ideology.
The Asturias Uprising: the Legion in Spain
Spain of the 1930s had reached the boiling point. The country was divided between the established power of the large landowners and the Catholic Church and the forces of modernity represented by the unions and agricultural reform parties which formed the radical left. The 1933 general election in Spain resulted in victory of parties on the right. The results were contested by the left-wing opposition parties, which called for a general strike.
In Asturias, a province in northern Spain on the Atlantic coast, local unions in several mining towns gathered small arms and were determined to see the strike through. The strike began with the miners occupying several towns, attacking and seizing local Civil and Assault Guard barracks. In the days that followed, columns of armed miners advanced along the road to the provincial capital at Oviedo. They were joined in part by government troops and took control of the city. After occupying several other towns, most notably the large industrial centre of La Felguera, “revolutionary committees” were set up to govern the territory under their control.
The government sent in troops from neighboring provinces to quell the fast growing movement, but the inexperienced troops were met by heavy resistance on the part of the leftist insurgents, who were well supplied with small arms, dynamite, 200 machines guns and 29 artillery pieces taken from the arms factory at Trubia or from captured government arsenals. As the insurgents continued to advance, the government called upon the Army of Africa, the only combat-tested regulars in the largely short-service conscript Spanish Army. The “Africans” responded by shipping the 3rd, 5th, and 6th Banderas of the Legion, as well as units of the Moroccan Regulares, to the Spanish mainland. Led by General Francisco Franco, the troops were moved by rail to the northern province; within a week of heavy fighting and facing fanatical resistance on the part of the revolutionaries, the government troops were able to retake the towns from the miners.
Statistics of the uprising remain vague. By some estimates, some 3,000 miners were killed in the fighting while Legion casualties were only 13 dead and 46 wounded. Other army units suffered an estimated 200 casualties while civilian losses numbered in the hundreds, including 33 priests. The repression of the uprising carried out by the colonial troops was harsh; accusations against them included looting, rape and summary executions. The events in Asturias were only a portent of worse things to come. What many considered to be a ruthless suppression of the uprising by the Legion and the Moroccans, collectively the Army of Africa, only added to their fearsome reputation.
The Pronunciamiento and the Airlift from Africa
The situation quickly degenerated and the country found itself polarized between the political parties on the right and the left. In the general elections of 1936, a coalition of the left, the Popular Front, won by a slim margin. They immediately began to advocate certain measures which infuriated the right wing opposition.
Fearing military intervention, the leftist government carried out a shake up on the highest levels of the Army command, removing suspect generals from their posts and sending any possible opponents outside of Spain. Franco, then Chief of Staff, was sent to the Canary Islands. General Mola, commander of the Army of Africa, was relieved of his command and given an insignificant post in Spain. This, however, allowed him to direct the mainland uprising.
The Pronunciamiento (declaration, used to designate a form of military rebellion or coup d’état) began in the overseas territories on 17 July, 1936. Meeting little resistance, the next day the forces of the rebel generals controlled all of Spain’s overseas bases. Two days later it began on the peninsula, where troops under General Mola gained control of a small area in the south of Spain and only one major city, Seville. The rising was intended to be a swift coup d’état, but the government retained control of most of the country and the peninsular military forces.
Franco arrived in Ceuta from the Canary Islands to take command of the Colonial Forces. Almost all of the Navy and Air Force remained loyal to the Republic, making any sea crossing nearly impossible. Realizing that without an intervention by the Army of Africa the Pronunciamiento was almost certain to fail, Franco mustered what available aircraft he could and began to shuttle troops to the mainland. Within in a few days the entire 5th Bandera had been flown in and completed the occupation of Seville. Additional aircraft became available and in the months that followed over 23,000 men of the Army of Africa were flown across the Strait of Gibraltar in the first “air bridge” in military history.
The Spanish Civil War was to last three years, with participation, either direct or covert, by dozens of other nations, most notably Germany, Italy and Russia. Beginning with the airlift, Spain would become a testing ground for weapons and tactics which were to become the basis of modern warfare: air–ground force coordination, armored blitzkrieg tactics, improvements in radio communications, urban warfare, and so on.
The war transformed the Spanish Legion, designed to combat colonial insurgency, into a modern military force. Legion cavalry, which had been effective in the rough terrain of the desert, was re-formed into armored units equipped with German and Italian tanks. Flamethrower platoons and anti-tank units were created. Less publicized than the Republic’s International Brigades, a significant number of foreign volunteers were incorporated into the Legion. Los Viriatos, volunteers from Portugal, arrived in the hundreds. Banderas of Italian Black Shirts under their own officers fought alongside the legionnaires. French monarchist volunteers formed their own Joan of Arc Bandera. An Irish Bandera, under the command of Gen. Eoin O’Duffy, also joined the fight. Used as shock troops throughout the war, the Legion suffered over 37,000 casualties, killed or wounded.
The Original African Tercios Today
When the Civil War ended, Spain was left devastated and economically impoverished with no desire to participate in the world war which was to follow a few years later. A majority of the Legion Banderas were disbanded and the original tercios returned to North Africa and to overseas duty. They would see action against the Sahara Liberation Army until Spain relinquished the Spanish Sahara in 1976 following Moroccan independence in 1956.
The remaining active Legion tercios were given the titles of heroes who had commanded the Spanish Armies of the 16th and 17th centuries. The 1st Tercio, in Melilla, “Gran Capitan”; the 2nd, posted in Ceuta, was named “Ducque de Alba”; the 3rd Tercio, “Don Juan de Astria” and the 4th “Alejandro Farnesio” were based permanently in Spain.
A Rapid Reaction Force
The 1st and 2nd Tercios based in Morocco are mechanized light infantry which form the spearhead of Spain’s Rapid Reaction Force. In reality the enclaves are extremely small. Melilla is not even five square miles in size, which is about a fifth of the size of Manhattan. As this limits the scope and range of military activities, both of the African tercios participate in frequent maneuvers in peninsular Spain. Transporting the tercio is a major logistic operation of loading men and equipment aboard troop carriers for the short sea voyage to the continent.
In the last 20 years the Spanish Legion has been deployed in a number of UN and NATO peacekeeping missions. The latest training on the peninsula was in part preparation for a deployment in Lebanon in the near future. Most of the peninsular large scale maneuvers are carried out in conjunction with other Spanish Legion units based in Spain. The largest Legion base, Viator, is near Malaga, in the southern Spain. Known as the Brigade of the Legion (BRILEG), it is comprised of a command center and support and logistics battalions including Legion artillery, armored, combat engineers, communications and special intervention groups.
Back from the Peninsula
As we observed the 1st Tercio returning from training exercises on the peninsula, one officer pointed out, “This is also part of the exercise. Within 12 hours we can get virtually an entire bandera, 600 men and equipment, vehicles, as well as the heavy weapons support and medical units on board and ready to sail. We do this every time we go on maneuvers with the peninsular forces. The legionnaires are well trained and ready for combat and we also have to be ready to handle the logistics of any mission we may be given.”
Lowered from the upper deck, the BMR armored personnel carriers formed a column dockside. The Pegaso BMR, Blindado Medio sobre Ruedas, is the main battle vehicle of both African tercios as well as a majority of other Spanish units. The six-wheeled personnel carrier, usually armed with a .50 cal M2HB or 7.62mm MG1A1 machine gun and a 40mm LAG-40 grenade launcher, can be fitted for a number of specific assignments, including amphibious capability and NBC protection. The BMR can be armed with TOW or Milan anti-tank missiles and can be modified for use as a medical, command post, reconnaissance, communications or mortar platform. The BMR is produced in Spain by General Dynamics as a joint venture with Steyr, Austria.
The other vehicle used by the Tercios is the Vehiculo de Alta Movilidad Tactico or VAMTAC. Designed and built by UROVESA in Spain, the four-wheel-drive military vehicle is similar in appearance and design to the HMMWV used by the US military and was designed to meet similar requirements and specifications. The highly mobile, multipurpose off-road vehicle is air-portable and can be adapted for use in a variety of combat roles and fitted to carry a variety of armaments.
Preparing for Tomorrow’s Missions
Back in Morocco, the 1st and 2nd Tercios continue training in platoon-size units, as the relative small size of the enclaves hinders large troop movements. Both tercios have developed a variety of training installations and procedures. As one officer told me, “The enclave (Melilla) is really small so we have to keep the men busy; the worst would be for them to get bored. This means training every day and inventing new and interesting challenges.”
In Melilla one of the more interesting training installations is known simply as the Casa. As the name implies, it’s a series of fully furnished rooms which make up a realistic setting for various training operations. The day I was there, a platoon from 2nd Company was working on a hostage rescue scenario. As the men moved through the rooms, instructors followed the exercise from the catwalk that was set up over the facility.
The captain in charge told me that the casa was used for a number of different exercises. “For instance, one explosives team will set up booby traps and another team will then go in and disarm the traps; then the roles are switched. It’s a game but it helps perfect skills. We also use the casa in training for house searches like we have carried out a lot in Afghanistan. Part of the squad will contain the occupants while the others look for arms, documents, and so on. Today, working on hostage rescue, they have to secure each room, making sure no one is hiding somewhere, then overpower the people holding the hostages. All this should be done as quickly and as silently as possible.”
Live fire exercises
I got the impression that the Spanish Legion used more live fire training than other units I’ve worked with. The philosophy behind this is that in order to be effective in combat, the men have to be accustomed to firing live rounds and having live ammo being fired in close proximity. Near the main firing range at the 1st Tercio base in Melilla, a below-ground level line fire compound had been installed to practice room clearing and to get the men used to using live ammo in close quarters. The combat range was set up with a main hall running down the center with several “rooms” on each side with silhouette targets set up inside. As the combat group made its way down the center hallway, they cleared each room, two shots into each “bad guy” as they worked their way through the exercise.
On the Firing Range
The next day, the bandera’s 2nd Company was involved in a live fire exercise on the rifle range. A series of blinds, representing walls and rooms, was set up about 100 meters from the targets. In this exercise, the combat team was to proceed across the range, using the blinds as cover, as they fired on the targets at each opportunity. The sniper team was set up on a hillside about 500 meters from the range, again in communication with the squad leader. Their role was to eliminate specific targets, using cinder blocks that would pulverize when hit, so that the combat team could see the results and continue their progression.
The officer leading the operation explained to me that they were in radio contact with the sniper team and designated the targets as the exercise went on. “We often use the snipers as support for the intervention teams because they are mobile enough to infiltrate with the team and still have enough power to stop a vehicle if necessary or puncture through a wall. In a live fire exercise like this one, we want to get the men used to firing real rounds in a combat situation. The fact that the snipers are also firing over their heads is a bit unnerving, but it’s important that they are aware of the presence of the sniper team and become familiar working with them so that they can identify the shots from behind (coming from the snipers) as friendly fire.”
When involved in peacekeeping missions, soldiers are frequently in direct contact with the civilian population and are there to try to defuse any potentially violent situations which could occur. Usually one or more units will be trained and equipped specifically for crowd control. Needless to say, they could also be deployed in domestic civil unrest situations, if need be, as support to police or national guard-type units which usually handle these situations.
In Melilla I watched as 1st Company, 1st Bandera ran through a typical crowd control exercise. A group of legionnaires armed with sticks and bottles formed behind a makeshift barrier. In response, several BMR armored personnel carriers arrived at the scene along and troops dressed in full riot gear—helmets, face masks, shields and body armor—began to dismount. One group covered the other until they could position themselves and formed a tightly knit skirmish line to advance behind the cover of the high impact plastic shields protecting them from rocks, bottles or other projectiles. As they approached the crowd, they picked up the pace, stomping the ground, banging the truncheons on the shields as they chanted in cadence. This can be fairly intimidating to the people they are approaching.
The confrontation line was backed by soldiers armed with rifles capable of firing rubber projectiles, gas or smoke followed by armored vehicles proceeding slowly behind. Upon closing with the rioters, there are usually several options depending on the situation. In training the practice is usually to disperse them by driving a wedge through the center or pushing them into the open and rushing, truncheons in air, in an attempt to sow panic in their ranks, making it easier to disperse the group.
As the soldiers worked their way into the mob, some of the more violent individuals were apprehended and controlled, as the others were dispersed. The action was followed by various support groups, including the armored personnel carriers carrying light machine guns and anti-tank weapons and several sniper teams set up on the high ground above the riot scene.
The captain in charge of the exercise explained the heavy backup. “When you are faced with this sort situation during a peacekeeping mission abroad, like we saw in the Congo or in Kosovo, it’s quite different from simple civil unrest, say here in Spain. It can be extremely dangerous for our men on the ground. In this case there is a very real danger of having the situation degenerate into a combat situation. A situation which the troops in riot gear are not equipped to handle. Here the support groups would have to intervene in order to give the riot squad time to clear out of the area.”
Company Combat Specialization
The banderas of the tercio are comprised of what was generally referred to as “rifle companies,” and much of the training exercises I followed were the type usually seen in infantry and para regiments. In both Melilla and Ceuta, the companies worked on infiltration and urban combat with an emphasis on rappelling and helicopter drops and coordinated squad level combat. For the most part the legionnaires carry the standard Spanish Army issue HK G36 assault rifle in 5.56 cal. with a folding stock and built-in 1.5x scope. In certain cases modifications were made for specialized units. Sniper observers carried the HK G36 fitted with a 10x scope. Other special intervention groups used a shortened (bullpup) version.
Besides the live fire exercises and range training, both tercios have combat simulation weapons training. Using a laser-firing HK G36, the simulation training for 2nd Tercio in Ceuta included a darkened room where light targets were projected and the shooter used a point and shoot technique to hit them.
I later learned that there was a certain level of specialization within the Banderas and within the companies themselves. The 6th Company of 1st Tercio, for example, was trained in night operations; another had combat groups whose combat role was infiltration and sabotage, working primarily behind enemy lines. Both banderas had heavy weapons support to provide anti-tank, anti-air and light to medium mortar support.
Although the Spanish Legion still remains close to its traditions and history, for a number of years it has been totally integrated into the Spanish Army. Only volunteers are accepted and it remains still a “foreign” Legion, in that foreigners, coming exclusively from Spanish-speaking countries and former colonies, still make up about 25 percent of the ranks. Besides being trained to handle a wide range of combat situations, the Legion is one of the most experienced units in Spain, having been deployed in numerous overseas operations including Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congo and Lebanon. The life of a Spanish legionnaire is hard and training is rigorous. The Legion is properly considered as the most unique unit of the Spanish Army.
The Legion Creed: The Twelve Spirits
Spirit of the Legionnaire – A legionnaire is unique and peerless; he is blind to danger and fierce in combat, and always tries to close the distance with the enemy and fight with fixed bayonet.
Spirit of Camaraderie – He has a sacred oath to never abandon a single man on the battlefield, even if all perish.
Spirit of Friendship – Sworn between each two men.
Spirit of Union and Aid – At the call of “To Me the Legion,” wherever it may be heard, all will come and defend a legionnaire who asks for help, be he right or wrong.
Spirit of the March – A legionnaire will never admit that he is tired and will continue until he collapses from exhaustion. He is swift and tireless.
Spirit of Endurance – A legionnaire will never complain of fatigue, nor of pain, nor of thirst or lack of sleep; he will accomplish any given task, he will dig, drag cannons and gun carriages. On detachment or convoy duty he will do whatever work he is ordered to do.
Spirit of Going to the Sound of the Guns – The Legion, from each single man to the entire Legion, will always, always, go to the fight, day or night, even when not ordered to do so.
Spirit of Discipline – A legionnaire will do his duty; he will obey until death.
Spirit of Combat – The Legion will ask for combat, with no replacements, without counting the days, nor the months, nor the years.
Spirit of Death – Dying in combat is the greatest honor. You only die once. Death comes with no pain and is not as dreadful as it seems. The most dreadful thing is to live as a coward.
Spirit of the Legion Flag – The flag of the Legion will be the most glorious one, as it will be dyed by the blood of its legionnaires.
Spirit of Bravery – All legionnaires are brave. Every nation is proud of its bravery; here in the Legion it is necessary to show to all which is the most courageous country.