The War Between the Wars
In the skies over Spain, pilots and airplanes rehearsed for World War II.
- By Carl Posey
- Air & Space magazine, May 2009
NASM (SI 80 12995)
(Page 2 of 9)
By early August, the Ju 52s had flown 1,500 veteran troops from Spain's Army of Africa to the mainland in history's first major military airlift. With them came General Francisco Franco, who set up headquarters in Seville. Over the next few weeks, the Junkers and Savoias brought another 20,000 or so Army of Africa troops past the Mediterranean naval blockade. Franco emerged as leader of the Nationalist rebellion, but not of Hitler's air forces. The latter were quickly placed under German command, constituting a mini-Luftwaffe in Spain: the Condor Legion.
"None of us knew that the German Volunteer Corps in Spain went by that name," Luftwaffe ace Adolph Galland would write in The First and the Last. "We only noticed that one or another of our comrades vanished suddenly into thin air…and that after about six months he returned, sunburnt and in high spirits."
Galland became a Condor Legion legend, flying in swimming trunks, a cigar clamped in his teeth, his face blackened by gun smoke and engine oil. Leading the Mickey Mouse squadron (named for its pistol-toting rodent insignia), he honed the ground-attack abilities of the He 51. He developed carpet bombing to flush miners from caves in the northern province of Asturias, and, with his mechanic, brewed up a bomb called the flambo—a precursor to napalm.
Italy's air corps in Spain was known as la Aviazione Legionaria. With the Italian pilots came more trimotor bombers, along with Meridionali Ro.37 ground-attack biplanes. Italy's main gift, however, was the highly maneuverable, potently armed Fiat CR.32, which in Spain was called the Chirri.
Help came to the Republican side as well. Josef Stalin agreed to provide men and matériel, although not entirely for love. Airplanes were available at retail prices, to be paid in Spanish gold. By mid-October the Soviet Union shipped 30 SB-2 Katyushka (Little Kate) fast bombers. Designed by Andrei Tupolev, they were smooth-skinned, with a low cantilevered wing and two big Wright-Cyclone-type radial engines. These were joined by the agile Polikarpov I-15 Chaika (Seagull, for its gull-like upper wing), which the Spanish would call Chato (Snub-nose), and Polikarpov R-5s and R-Zs, which were used for reconnaissance and light bombing.
Then, in early November, Spain received the first Polikarpov I-16 monoplanes. In an age of two-wingers, this speedy fighter had a single, low, cantilevered metal wing and retractable landing gear, plus a 1,000-horsepower radial engine up front. The I-16 was called Yastrebok (Hawk) and, at home, Ishak (Little Donkey). In Spain it was called Mosca (Fly) by its friends, Rata (Rat) by its enemies. By any name, the I-16 was at the time of its debut the most advanced fighter ever sent into combat.
Soviet volunteer pilots came over even before the airplanes arrived, and soon were given Spanish noms de guerre. Yakov Smushkevich became General Douglas, Colonel Pyotr Punpur became Colonel Julio, fighter group commander Pavel Rychagov, Pablo, and so on. By late November, 300 Soviet pilots were flying for the Republican side, which, having lost the early air war, soon fought back to reclaim the sky over Madrid.
Volunteers from other countries also flocked to the Republican cause. Eager to fight against the fascist rebels, the French writer André Malraux came over with a gaggle of lumbering Potez Po.540 twin-engine bombers—familiarly, "flying coffins." Although he never piloted an airplane, Malraux survived more than 60 missions. But his involvement in the war was short-lived. By January 1937 the flamboyant polymath was gone, and more than half of the several dozen Po.540s sent by France had been destroyed.