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 3 of 9)
The first American volunteers arrived in late September 1936, followed by another contingent in November, and a third near the end of the year. Ideology was less important to this group than it had been to Malraux's. Most thought the cause was okay, and $1,500 a month and $1,000 for every Nationalist airplane destroyed was good money. Ben Leider, the New York Post "flying reporter," was the only Communist, and the only one working for regular officer's wages, like his Russian and Spanish counterparts. Not long after his arrival, he was killed by CR.32s from Morato's Patrulla Azúl.
The American volunteers were better at aviation than at life. Frank Tinker, whose memoir, Some Still Live, would make him briefly famous, was typical: Annapolis graduate cashiered from the Navy for bad behavior, traveling on a passport issued to one "Francisco Gomez Trejo" (who, unaccountably, spoke no Spanish). Tinker's fellow volunteers included aviators of fortune, barnstormers, bootleggers, and thieves. But Tinker, the aw-shucks Arkansan with a taste for drink, women, fighting, and flying, became the mercenaries' historian.
He flew for the Escuadrilla de Chatos, commanded by Andrés García Lacalle, who, at the age of 27, had already downed 11 Nationalist aircraft. Lacalle organized his unit into three "patrols" of four aircraft each, with Tinker and three other Americans known as La Patrulla Americana. In early February 1937, the squadron moved to a field near Guadalajara, northeast of Madrid. There the Americans got their first look at the Russian I-16. Failing to recognize the new face of aerial warfare, Tinker thought the aircraft was a knockoff of the Boeing P-26 Peashooter.
Guadalajara was the scene of the Republican pilots' finest moment. In early March 1937, word came that a massive Italian force was advancing on the city. Harold "Whitey" Dahl, another American, took his Chato up into the soggy weather on an armed reconnaissance mission. Tempting the Italians with a low pass, he discovered they were paralyzed by flooded roads and washed-out bridges, and had little anti-aircraft defense.
As soon as the rain let up, Lacalle scrambled his Chatos, each aircraft laden with 18-pound bombs. Dropping under the low ceiling, the squadron found and attacked the Italians. It was the only unit on either side flying that day, for the rains had turned most airfields into bogs. Lacalle's had been planted in alfalfa, which kept it usable.
As the weather lifted, scores of Republican fighters and bombers attacked the Italians again. With staggering losses of men and matériel, the advance stalled. It was the first time in history that air power had stopped a major ground offensive.
Between fights, the pilots could enjoy hot baths and an endless party at Madrid's Hotel Florida, where they befriended Ernest Hemingway and other journalists. Hemingway's short story "Night Before Battle" has a pilot called Baldy who is modeled on Dahl.
But even as the Republican aviators seized the initiative, the era of volunteers was winding down. Tinker and another American, A.J. Baumler, moved to a Soviet Mosca unit. Before the summer ended, they would head home. The Republicans would fight most of the air war with brand-new Spanish pilots, trained in Russia.