No pasarán: HazMo11 and the Spanish Civil War in Advanced Squad Leader
The Spanish Civil War was, in human terms, an epic clash of arms: Almost 300,000 combatants are thought to have been killed, as well as more than 150,000 civilians. The conflict also looms large in the history of the 20th century, having been memorably described by U.S. ambassador to Spain Claude Bowers as the “dress rehearsal” for World War II.
Among the idealistic combatants who travelled to Spain to join the fight against fascism were Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, whose war experiences served to inform, respectively, For Whom the Bell Tolls and Homage to Catalonia. The war also inspired Pablo Picasso’s unsettling surrealist masterpiece Guernica, which depicted the bombing of the Basque town of the same name on April 26, 1937.
All in all, something like 50,000 foreigners assisted the Republican side through the International Brigades—whose Brigada Abraham Lincoln included a Washington Battalion made up of Americans, and a Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion made up of Canadians. At least a quarter of these international volunteers died in combat, but most of the rest went home with frightening stories to tell. Even before the Nazis invaded Poland, the world’s understanding of fascism’s existential threat to humanity was shaped by General Francisco Franco’s successful campaign to topple the Second Spanish Republic.
And yet one thing that the Spanish Civil War has not yielded is a wide array of popular boardgames. This may be partly due to the fact that the conflict was so greatly overshadowed in scale and importance by World War II. But it may also be due to the fact that neither side emerged as sympathetic. As Orwell described in Homage to Catalonia (and as Adam Hochschild described, from a U.S. perspective, in his 2016 book, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939), the Republican war effort turned out to be incompetent, fractured, and cynical, with the dominant pro-Stalinist faction eventually turning murderously upon its Trotskyist and anarchist allies. And as late as early March, 1939, just weeks before Franco conquered Madrid and ended the war, Republican forces inside the capital city were engaged in a deadly power struggle within their own ranks. All in all, the many regional and political subplots make the war difficult to model in any kind of conventional wargame (though, of course, this hasn’t stopped numerous game designers from trying).
However, The Beleaguered Capital, HazMo scenario 11, presents a reminder that when Republican and Nationalist forces fought each other in pitched battles, the mode of combat really did offer a preview of World War II, including the use of air power and tanks. (While the only tanks that existed in Spain when the war broke out were a handful of tiny, World War I-era Renault FTs, the Russians sent T-26s to the Republicans while Germany dispatched Pz Is to the Nationalists. In both cases, these vehicles arrived in Spain during the Fall of 1936, just a few months before the December 16 dateline on The Beleaguered Capital.)
Given the Civil-War motif of this Chuck Hammon-designed scenario (a common theme of all the scenarios in the second Hazardous Movement Scenario Pack), it is fitting that both forces are represented by counters of the same colour—Allied-Minor light green in the case of the Republicans, and Axis-Minor dark green in the case of the Nationalists. The site of the battle is the town of Boadilla Del Monte, to the north of Madrid, the back story being Franco’s early effort to cut the Republican-held capital off from supplies. The Nationalist OB in the scenario, comprising elements of the Legión Española, was part of a historical force numbering about 17,000 soldiers that the Nationalists had committed to the offensive.
Following a general trend in ASL scenario design, the two sides effectively take turns as attacker. At the outset of The Beleaguered Capital, it is an elite Nationalist force attacking the Republican-controlled town (as depicted by Board 64), which is held by an almost entirely green garrison. Then on turn three, the tide turns, and a large force of first-line Republican infantry swarm in to push the Nationalists back. After seven turns, the Nationalists win if the Republicans can’t trace a contiguous line of road hexes from the town center (hex R5, to be specific) to the board’s southern road edge that is entirely free of Good Order Nationalist MMCs on or adjacent to the claimed road path.
It’s a great scenario that I’ve played twice, both times as Republican. And my sense is that, on balance, the Nationalists may have a slightly harder time of it. The turn-three Republican reinforcements are formidable—as strong as, or stronger than, the entire Nationalist OB, I would argue, once you factor in the superior firepower of the trio of T-26s as compared to the equal number of Pz Is. (Incidentally, the XI International Brigade designation of the reinforcements corresponds to a storied quartet of Republican battalions that were populated in part by troops from Germany and Italy—i.e., the fascist countries supporting the Nationalist side.) And while the Republicans’ original garrison force may be green, it is stiffened by the presence of a Commissar, which can make a big difference in this kind of scenario. (The historical precedent here is clear, as every Spanish military unit on the Republican side apparently had a Comissar Politico representing Soviet interests.)
Because of the way the victory conditions are structured, the Nationalist player can create a path to victory by successfully defending strongpoints at either the north or south end of the road (Q6, R4, S5, S7 all being candidate locations in the north, and CC6 or FF6 being possibilities on the south end). But of course, this calculation will be affected by the initial Republican deployment (which itself will be somewhat opaque to the Nationalist player given the Republicans’ eight concealment counters and one HIP MMC allowance). For what it’s worth, my view is that attacking (and of course holding) one or more north-end choke points gives the Nationalists their best chance of victory.
When I was setting up my Republican defense in The Beleaguered Capital, my main dilemma was whether to defend or concede the N6-O6-P5-P6-Q6 building complex, which can fairly easily be rushed by the Nationalists. (See close-up, below.) The problem here is that if you do defend it in a serious way (which is what I ultimately decided the Republicans have to do), it really doesn’t make sense unless you throw the Commissar (and probably the Fortified Location as well) into the mix, because otherwise your green defenders on the east side of the M8-S6 road segment are just going to break and surrender.
For the Nationalists, I think one key factor is maintaining discipline on your use of the Pz Is, which come in one per turn for the first three turns. There’s going to be a strong temptation to use them aggressively as a means to get your infantry into position to fend off the Republican reinforcements. But if you lose one or more of these tanks, it can make life very easy for the Republicans when they wheel in their platoon of T-26s on turn three. Those buttoned-up 45L guns may not look like much (especially against Nationalists holed up in stone buildings). But if the Republican player is free to just line the tanks up unopposed in a way that allows him to pound away for four turns against the Nationalist strongpoints, he’s eventually going to score some hits—and can also use them to crash (or bypass-freeze) his way to victory on the last turn. The best use of the Pz I’s, in my opinion, is to buzz around behind the T-26 platoon, threatening rear shots, and thereby forcing the T-26s to engage with these tiny armored gnats rather than zeroing in on the Nationalist-held strongpoints. (The Pz Is’ CMG MA may seem pitifully underpowered for this kind of task. But at close range, they aren’t an entirely negligible threat to the T-26s, especially given their double-barrelled attack. And of course, their higher speed and radios allow them to dance around the lumbering T-26 platoon, as long as the Nationalist player ensures the Pz Is aren’t trapped within the close confines of the town center.)
As a note of caution, I would also urge the Nationalist player not to get too carried away with his turn one-to-three advance, and occupy the hill portion of the map. This may look like a great blocking location that the Nationalist can use to slow down the Republican reinforcements. But given the size of the Republican turn-three force, any Nationalist hilltop defenses are likely to turn into death traps. It may feel boring and passive to remain on the eastern side of the road, but I think that’s what the Nationalists have to do (on the north side of the map, at least).
As for the actual historical epilogue, it was all-too-depressingly typical: The Nationalists won after a few days of vicious fighting, but only ended up seizing a few square kilometers of real estate even after taking (and inflicting) severe casualties. Rather than decisively strangling Madrid and ending the war quickly, Franco would continue to lay siege to the city until his forces seized complete control of the city on March 28, 1939.
This is an edited version of an article that will appear in a forthcoming Hazardous Movement newsletter.