Debuting on the Western Front in 1918, the French Renault FT was a revolutionary weapon. Small and equipped with a fully rotating turret, it was deployed en masse in the later stages of the Great War, greatly impacting warfare and military thinking. In the post-war period of instability and economic crisis, the small, cheap, and simple FT would be acquired by the militaries of many nations, and in most cases, was the basis on which their own tank development was born. One of these nations was the Kingdom of Spain, which used the Renault FT during the Rif War.
Context – Spain and the Great War
Following centuries of imperial decline culminating in defeat during the Spanish-American War of 1898, Spain’s place as a lower secondary world power was cemented.
Since the mid-Nineteenth Century, Spain had greatly expanded its influence and territory in North Africa, and, as a result, been in conflict with the local Rifian tribesmen. The Algeciras Conference of 1906, convened to resolve Franco-German colonial competition during the First Moroccan Crisis, resulted in concessions to Spain in Morocco. Lead and other metal deposits were soon discovered further inland in Rifian territory and, almost immediately, contracts were given to companies to mine the deposits and build railway links to the coast, further infuriating the locals.
These growing tensions resulted in an armed uprising by the Rifians, whose attack on railway workers in July 1909 started the Melilla War, which Spain won, gaining some new territory south of Melilla.
However, peace was not long-lasting. In 1911, widespread rebellions against the Sultan and Morocco threatened the Spanish and French possessions. To make matters worse, in what is known as the Agadir Crisis or Second Moroccan Crisis, Germany attempted to use gunboat diplomacy by sending the SMS Panther to the port of Agadir, hoping to gain colonial concessions from France in the Congo by further destabilizing the situation in Morocco. In the end, France made concessions in the Congo and both Spain and France gained more territory in Morocco.
In 1913, the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco was established, integrating the new territories. Small armed uprisings began the following year, though they lacked cohesion and there was little activity during World War I. Spain took no part in the Great War but kept a close eye on developments and, by observing, learned valuable lessons.
Spain’s First Tank
Designed to break the deadlock of trench warfare, the tank was one of the Great War’s major developments. Even before the guns fell silent, on October 18th 1918, the Spanish Government had made a formal petition to their French counterparts to begin negotiations for the acquisition of a Renault FT. However, the French authorities proved to be uncooperative in sharing their newest ‘toy’ with the rest of the world and did not respond to the Spanish request until January 15th 1919, once the Armistice was in place.
At this point, the Comisión de Experiencias, Proyectos y Comprobación del Material de Guerra [Eng. Commission for the Testing of War Materiel], a commission within the Spanish Ministry of War for the testing, trialing and acquisition of war materiel, fleshed out their request to the French Government by asking for a Renault FT equipped with the 37 mm Puteaux SA 18 cannon, followed a few days later by one for three more tanks equipped with the cannon and one with the Hotchkiss M1914 machine gun. This was authorized by Spanish authorities on March 5th 1919.
The petition was then amended to include two additional cannon-equipped tanks. This amended order for a total of seven tanks (six with a cannon and one with a machine gun) was rejected by the French Government on March 20th, leading to the negotiation of a new petition on April 12th. After tough talks, the French Government authorized the sale for F52,500 (Francs) of one machine gun armed FT in May 1919. The longed-for vehicle finally arrived in Madrid from the Centre d’Approvisionament de Materiel Automobile [Eng. Center of Automobile Provisioning] in Paris on June 23rd 1919. The vehicle’s serial number was ‘68352’ and it was equipped with an octagonal or ‘omnibus’ turret. It would be the only Renault FT with this type of turret which ever served in Spain.
After the vehicle’s arrival in Madrid, it was sent from the Estación del Norte train station (modern day Principe Pío) to either the Campamento military barracks or the Escuela Central de Tiro [Eng. Central Target Practice School] in Carabanchel. This journey was undertaken without the assistance of a truck or lorry. Two days later, the new tank was presented to the monarch, Alfonso XIII, and the Infantes with considerable attention from the press, which at the time, incorrectly claimed that the Renault FT had been a present to Alfonso XIII. Over the next few days, it was vigorously tested and was inspected by a military and political commission headed by Colonel Ramón Acha.
During testing, by order of the commission, the machine gun was replaced by license-built Hotchkiss machine guns to allow the use of the Spanish Army’s standard 7 mm Mauser ammunition. These tests were so satisfactory that, on August 13th 1919, the Spanish Government ordered a further ten tanks, eight armed with a machine gun and two with cannon, priced at F533,400. The machine gun-armed Renault FTs were to be delivered with Spanish Hotchkiss machine guns and 500 rounds of ammunition per tank. Unfortunately for the Spanish Government, the French Government refused this request, claiming there were no surplus tanks to sell, and later refused any sales at all. It is possible that French feathers had been ruffled by Spain’s having replaced the machine gun on the vehicle which had arrived in 1919. As a result, Spain decided to look elsewhere in their search for more tanks, though nothing came of this.
During another presentation organized by the Ministry of War in April 1920, the vehicle was given an “ARTILLERIA” inscription, denoting that it belonged to the artillery, the section of the army that had carried out the purchase. On the vehicle’s redesignation to the infantry, this inscription was removed.
The Disaster at Annual
After September 1919, Spain made an effort to assert military control over its protectorate in Morocco and to quell the small scale rebellions which were taking place. This conflict is known as the Rif War. Across the dry, mountainous territory, the Spanish military built a series of forts supplied by long convoy routes subject to constant ambushes. With the objective of occupying Alhucemas Bay, the General Commander of the Melilla military region, General Manuel Fernández Silvestre, stretched his troops too far from the supply lines and, in May 1921, pitched camp in Annual. The reinforcement troops which were supposed to aid Silvestre’s troops for the final pacification of the Rif were ambushed and massacred by tribesmen under the command of their famed leader, Abd el-Krim. Krim’s triumph led many to join his forces, including part of the native contingent attached to the Spanish.
Driven by his success, Krim advanced, taking different forts en route to Annual. Silvestre, whose forces were reduced to four days of supplies and ammunition for one day of combat and with over 6,000 Rifians ever closer, ordered the retreat back to Melilla on July 22nd. Chaos and disorder broke out when some of the native contingent decided to fire upon their Spanish officers and the Rifian columns arrived. Four hours later, 2,500 Spanish troops lay dead on the field of battle, including Silvestre, who, it is rumored, committed suicide. For the next month and a half, Krim pressed his attacks, taking several other forts and massacring scores of Spanish troops in the process. Over the next month and a half, between 8,000 and 10,500 Spanish troops died at the hands of the Rifians or as a result of the harsh conditions.
The events had severe political consequences in mainland Spain and brought down the government, leading to the appointment of a national unity government headed by Antonio Maura, although it too would fall in March 1922. A report written by General Juan Picasso commissioned by the War Ministry found General Silvestre chiefly responsible for the disaster. The political instability was such that, in September 1923, General Miguel Primo de Rivera launched a coup and successfully took power with the King’s blessing.
On the military front, it was felt that more modern equipment was needed to defeat the Rifians. In August 1921, France agreed to sell 6 Schneider CA-1 tanks. Negotiations continued and, on September 14th, an agreement was reached between Spanish representatives and Renault for the acquisition of 10 Renault FTs, a Renault TSF (command and radio vehicle), spare parts for repairs and 11 Renault FU-25 lorries to transport troops. The tanks were equipped with the rounded ‘Berliet’ turret and were either unarmed but built to take a machine gun, or armed with the modified Spanish 7 mm Hotchkiss machine gun. The deal with Renault was worth 31 million pesetas (31,135,098.75).
The vehicles were transported from their factory to the border, arriving in Hendaye on December 17th, 1921, and the order to urgently transport them to the Escuela Central de Tiro in Madrid was given.
Once in Madrid, along with the Renault FT that had arrived in 1919, they were attached to the infantry section in the Escuela, where the infantry familiarized themselves with the new vehicles and tank-infantry operations. The tanks and infantry were amalgamated to form the Compañía de Carros de Asalto de Infantería [Eng. Infantry Tank Company] under the command of Captain Vicente Valero and this was divided into two sections with five tanks apiece and a command section with the Renault TSF.
The Renault FT Lands in Africa
On March 5th, 1922, even before instruction in Madrid was complete, the order was given to transport the tanks, their personnel, and instructors to Melilla with the utmost urgency. Two days later, on the 7th, eleven tanks (one had been left in the Escuela Central de Tiro), fourteen support vehicles, and thirty-seven personnel (four captains, eight sergeants, and twenty-five soldiers) departed Madrid by train towards the southern city of Málaga.
On March 12th, the tanks embarked the steamship Guillém Sorolla to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, docking in Melilla the following morning. On arrival, the Commander in Chief of Melilla asked Captain Valero to compile a report on the preparedness of the company and to assess if it was ready to enter combat on March 14th. The report found that two of the tanks had been slightly damaged on the journey from Madrid, that the company had only half of their intended drivers (of the required 40 drivers, there were only 22; 9 for the tanks, 11 for the trucks, and 2 for the fuel trucks), and that the commander and machine gun operators had not been fully instructed. The training was so incomplete that three of the Escuela’s instructors were sent from Madrid to continue the instruction whilst on campaign. Captain Valero concluded that eight more days would be needed to carry out the necessary repairs, to await the arrival of more personnel, and to complete training. The instructors even volunteered to cover for the missing and less experienced tank drivers so that the unit could enter combat as soon as possible, but their offer was refused by the Melilla commander.
The Compañía de Carros de Asalto de Infantería set up a base in Dar Drius (Driouch*) on March 14th 1922. One source, Carro de Combate Renault FT-17, states that the decision was made to leave one of the tanks in Melilla for training purposes, though this is not corroborated by other sources. Just 24 hours later, the order was given to join a column under the command of General Dámaso Berenguer in Itihuen (Ichtiuen).
*Please note that place names are spelled as by Spanish sources. Most place names have since changed. When possible, the current name is provided in parentheses.
On March 18th, the Renault FTs of the Compañía saw their baptism by fire. At 6 a.m., the Tercio de Extranjeros [Eng. Spanish Foreign Legion], with 7 tanks leading the column, advanced on a Rifian position in Tuguntz (Tougount). The tanks moved into the Anvar (or Ambar) settlement under heavy fire. Soon, 800 m ahead of the infantry, they became surrounded by the Rifian forces, who, lacking the knowledge of how to destroy tanks, climbed onto them, began throwing rocks at them, and tried to stick their knives through vision slits.
Due to the hasty departure, some of the components had not been checked, including the machine guns, some of which jammed, leaving tanks and crews defenseless. Surrounded, and without the means to properly defend themselves, the order came to retreat. Three tanks, either immobilized or without fuel, were abandoned by their crews. Two crew members were killed and a tank driver was wounded.
Two of the tanks (nº 3 and nº4) had been abandoned on the battlefield and Rifian forces destroyed them with explosives on March 23rd. On March 29th, the remaining tanks and infantry managed to capture the positions of Anvar and Tuguntz and recover the damaged tanks. Repairs to tank nº3 by the Maestranza de Artillería took until April 1923, just over a year later.
Whilst their baptism by fire had been disastrous, the mission itself was successful in capturing the hamlets of Anvar and Yebel-Imelahen. The Army HQ set up a commission to investigate the tanks’ lackluster performance but concluded that this was due to the lack of cooperation between tanks and infantry, which could be explained by a lack of proper and lengthy training.
Over the ensuing months, the Spanish FTs would be in the heat of battle on a regular basis, most often supporting columns to protect them from ambush, but also covering retreats. On March 29th, 1922, they protected a retreat at Chemorra (Chamorra). Between May 23rd and 26th, they protected Dar Drius from night attacks. They protected a column in Tamassin on May 29th and one in Tizzi-Azza (Tafersit) on October 18th and carried out small attacks near Cheik in August. From their debut in Morocco to the end of August 25th, at least 21 operations of this kind have been recorded, most, if not all, taking place in the modern-day Driouch province of Morocco.
The most notable engagement involving the Renault FTs in the early stages of the Rif War took place on June 5th, 1923. Colonel Ruiz del Portal’s column was tasked with relieving a besieged position in Tizzi-Azza (Tafersit). The lead tank, nº9, commanded by Sergeant Mariano García Esteban, who had taken command of the whole section when Lieutenant Francisco Sánchez Zamora became a casualty, broke the Rifian positions under intense fire. García Esteban lost his left eye and his right eye was also damaged, though that did not stop him from advancing across the enemy trenches, before turning around and continuing to fire his machine gun from the rear. Wounded, but refusing to be evacuated, the sergeant fought on for 20 hours. Tizzi-Azza was liberated for the time being and García Esteban was awarded the Cruz Laureada de San Fernando [Eng. Laureate Cross of Saint Ferdinand], Spain’s highest military decoration for gallantry.
To make up for losses, an additional six machine gun-armed tanks were purchased in 1925, along with their truck transports and 12,000 rounds of ammunition for a total cost of over one million Francs*. The tanks arrived in Madrid on August 20th and would soon be used to take the war to the enemy.
* 1,036,052.85 F
From Alhucemas to the End of the War
In April 1925, Krim had advanced his operation to the French Protectorate, inflicting a humiliating defeat on French forces at the Battle of Uarga. After this, the Spanish and French governments began to collaborate to defeat Krim and his Rifians. It was decided to strike behind Rifian enemy lines in Alhucemas and, as a result, a massive naval invasion with air support was planned to be led by Miguel Primo de Rivera. This would be the first time in history that air forces, naval forces, and army were deployed under a unified command.
A number of the surviving tanks from the operations in the vicinity of Melilla and the 6 new tanks were transported to Ceuta to prepare for the landings. Prior to their arrival in Ceuta, landing practice was undertaken at Medik. Part of General Leopoldo Saro y Marín’s column, the 11 or 12 tanks involved in the operation were commanded by Captain Juan de Urzaiz.
On the late morning of September 8th, 1925, the first of the 13,000 Spanish troops were landed on the beaches of Alhucemas Bay (Gulf of Hoceima) supported by covering fire from bombers, battleships, cruisers, and even a seaplane tender. 26 barges (named ‘barcazas K’ [Eng. K barges] in Spanish sources) bought from the British and used in the failed Gallipoli campaign in 1915, transported troops, and for the first time in combat, tanks. Each barge carried three tanks, though, due to the tides leaving the barges 50 m off the beach, it was impossible to disembark them until the early hours of the 9th with the assistance of some wooden structures. Once landed, the Renault FTs, with support from the 6th and 7th banderas [Eng. Battalions] of the Tercio de Marruecos, were used to secure the right flank of the beach and the advances on Malmusi. The heights controlling the Bay were captured by the end of September. After Alhucemas, a Spanish victory was finally in sight.
In November 1925, the tank forces were reorganized into the newly created Grupo de Carros Ligeros de Combate [Eng. Light Tanks Group] and would prove their worth throughout 1926 in the sieges of Iberloken and Tafrás and the recapture of Xauen (Chefchaouen or Chaouen). The war would dwindle to pacifyin some stubborn Rifians still holding out in 1927. After a rocky start, the Renault FTs had proved themselves.
The Renault FT in Times of ‘Peace’
The order for the Grupo de Carros Ligeros de Combate to return to Spain was published on October 31st 1926. Sources indicate that between 15 and 17 tanks that had survived the constant fighting were sent back to the Escuela Central de Tiro in Carabanchel. Shortly afterward, the Grupo de Carros Ligeros de Combate was disbanded. On November 22nd 1926, the Renault FTs were reorganized into Grupo de Carros de Asalto [Eng. Tank Groups] of the 3rd section of the Escuela Central de Tiro under the command of Captain Marcos Nieto Malo and were mainly used for training personnel. The Grupo de Carros de Asalto was supposed to be made up of a HQ Company, a Renault Company, and a Trubia Company. The Renault Company had a command tank, two sections with 5 tanks apiece, and a reserve section with 4 tanks for replacements, a total of 15 tanks. The Trubia Company was to have had the same structure except that it would have only had two tanks in the reserve section. However, the Trubias were never built in the anticipated numbers.
After a few years of being limited to training and maneuvers, the tanks would be used again at the end of 1930. By this point, Miguel Primo de Rivera had resigned his position as dictator and had been replaced by General Dámaso Berenguer. The military dictatorship, which was supported by the monarch Alfonso XIII, was very unpopular among the political establishment, the general population, and even elements within the armed forces.
On December 12th, 1930, two Army Captains in the northeastern town of Jaca revolted and proclaimed a republic. Following their early success, they marched on Huesca, where they were defeated. The coup attempt was not able to count on the support it had expected. On December 15th, by which time the two Army Captains had been executed for rebellion, General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano and Air Commander Ramón Franco (the brother of General Francisco Franco, future dictator of Spain), took control of the Cuatro Vientos airbase in Madrid and flew planes over Madrid to incite workers and the general population to go on strike against the monarchy and in support of the Republic. This is somewhat curious given Queipo de Llano’s role in the coup against the Republic less than six years later.
A column incorporating a number of Renault FTs under the command of General Luis Orgaz Yoldi was sent to recapture the base but before they arrived, Queipo de Llano and Ramón Franco fled to France, where they would remain in exile until the proclamation of the Republic a few months later in April 1931. The Renault FTs continued to serve under the Second Spanish Republic and were active on both sides during the Spanish Civil War.
Influence and Legacy
As with many of the other nations which bought the Renault FT, the tank would serve as the basis from which indigenous tank development was born.
In 1925, three men, Commander Victor Landesa Domenech, Captain Carlos Ruíz de Toledo and Rogelio Areces came up with the idea of working together to design and build an indigenous tank for the Spanish Army. Given the lack of tank technology information available, it should come as no surprise that they based their design on the Renault FT. The project was a private venture paid for out of their own pockets with no state supervision or finance.
The prototype vehicle resembled the Renault FT, with an almost identical tail and suspension. To surmount the firepower concerns which had led the Renault FT to be extremely vulnerable when its main and only machine gun jammed, two overlapping turrets with independent movement and each armed with a Hotchkiss 7 mm machine gun were adopted. There were plans to substantially improve the Renault FT’s armor and engine, but due to financial and technological constraints, these were only marginally improved.
The success of the prototype in tests inspired the team to create a new tank, the Modelo Trubia Serie A; Spain’s first indigenous tank. Only 4 were built and they saw limited action in the Asturias Uprising of 1934 and the early stages of the Spanish Civil War.
The legacy of the Renault FT in Spain lives on. When the Regimiento de Infantería Acorazada «Alcázar de Toledo» n.º 61 [Eng. Mechanized Infantry Regiment ‘Alcázar de Toledo’ No. 61] was formed in December 1943, it was decided that the regiment’s emblem should feature a Renault FT. Additionally, when the regiment was incorporated into the newly formed Brigada de Infantería Acorazada «Guadarrama» XII [Eng. ‘Guadarrama’ Mechanized Infantry Brigade No. 12] in 1966, the Brigade would also choose the Renault FT as its emblem. Fate would have it that the Brigade would be one of the last units to serve in Morocco when, as part of Spain’s last imperial foray on mainland Africa, it was deployed without seeing action during the Green March in 1975.
Camouflage and Markings
The first Renault FT arriving in Spain in 1919 had a three-tone camouflage, the light base color being khaki and the other two colors dark green and brown, which may have been applied in the French factory. Apart from its period with the “ARTILLERIA” insignia, no other insignia or unit marking was present on this vehicle.
Because of the poor quality of some of the photos, it is difficult to tell what camouflage was painted onto the 1921 batch of Renault FTs. Whilst some photos would suggest just a two-tone camouflage, possibly khaki or sand and dark green, this was probably not the case and the contrast in the photographs is not the best. A grey-green and dark green camouflage combination has also been suggested by some artist’s interpretations, but this may not be the case. In some better contrast pictures, the two tones of camouflage appear to be separated by a thin dark line, maybe black.
Based on photographic evidence, individual tank markings seem to be inconsistent. Without accurate dating of said photographs, it is almost impossible to tell when different aspects were introduced. However, vehicles are often seen with an “INFANTERIA Nº” [Eng. Infantry No.] inscription on the left side.
To distinguish between the two sections of the Compañía de Carros de Asalto de Infantería, a system of circles or triangles on the rear sides of the tank was developed. Some photos of the vehicles atop of trucks, presumably taken as the vehicles arrived in the Protectorate, show the circles and triangles empty. The tank numbers and the number in the circle or triangle were not necessarily the same, as the number in the circle or triangle denoted the number within each individual section. In other photos, it is possible to distinguish a number 1, number 2, and number 5 (tank no. 10) in a triangle and number 4 in a circle.
One photograph shows a confusing vehicle with a circle with a number crossed out and a number 4 written on the suspension beam. Other photos depict Spanish Renault FTs with a small white number inconsistently painted on the suspension beam.
The FU-25 trucks purchased to transport the tanks had a similar camouflage pattern. Each truck was assigned to an individual tank and would have the relevant “INFANTERIA Nº” insignia on the side.
The vehicle which was left in Carabanchel had an “ESCUELA CENTRAL DE TIRO INFANTERIA” insignia instead of the infantry insignia. It also had an “ATM 1080” inscription on a white rectangle on the suspension beam. A similar numbered inscription on a white background was given to vehicles at some point between 1926 and 1931. By this later point, the Renaults’ three-tone camouflage had been replaced by single-tone camouflage.
The Renault TSF
With the summer 1921 purchase from Renault came a Renault TSF (Télégraphie Sans Fil [Eng. Wireless Telegraphy]). This vehicle differed from regular Renault FTs in that it was turretless and unarmed. In place of the turret was a superstructure that housed an E 10 radio system with possibly other radios. The top of the superstructure had a tall pole used for flag communications with other vehicles. Instead of the Renault FT’s crew of two, the Renault TSF had three – driver, commander, and radio operator.
In Spain, the vehicle was known as Renault TSH (Telegrafía Sin Hilos) and was used as the command vehicle for the Compañía de Carros de Asalto de Infantería. This was indicated by the “CARRO DE MANDO” [Eng. Command Tank] inscription at the front of the superstructure. Additionally, the vehicle was designated as “INFANTERIA Nº1” [Eng. Infantry No 1] with the inscription being present on either side of the superstructure.
Once it was in North Africa, the vehicle was given a lamp fixed to the left side of the superstructure. In a number of photos in Morocco, the vehicle has a light circle with a dark triangle inside it painted on either rear side. As has been explained, the two sections of the Compañia either had a circle or a triangle in this position, so being a command vehicle for both sections, a combination of the two makes sense.
The tank was painted in a two-tone camouflage with a light base (possibly light grey) and thick dark vertical lines (possibly dark grey or green). After its use during the Rif War, the fate of this particular vehicle is unknown.
As occurred in many other nations worldwide, the Renault FT was the first step in the armored history of Spain. It was sent straight into battle without much preparation or training. After an underwhelming start, it proved its worth time and time again as Spanish forces fought for a hard-earned victory against well-organized and motivated resistance in the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco. Its continued legacy to this day is testament to the high esteem the small tank was held in. Whilst a number of Renault FTs remain in Spain, these are all Polish imports dating from the Spanish Civil War.
Artemio Mortera Pérez, Los Medios Blindados de la Guerra Civil Española Teatro de Operaciones de Andalucía y Centro 36/39 (Valladolid: Alcañiz Fresno’s editores, 2009)
Juan Carlos Caballero Fernández de Marcos, “La Automoción en el Ejército Español Hasta la Guerra Civil Española” Revista de Historia Militar No. 120 (2016), pp. 13-50
Oscar Bruña Royo, Vehículos Acorazados en el Tercio Vol 1 De Cáceres a Sarajevo pasando por El Aaiún (Valladolid: Quirón Ediciones, 1998)
Pablo García Sánchez, “Historia del Regimiento de Infantería Acorazada Alcázar de Toledo Nº 61”, Grupos de Estudio de Historia Militar, 2015