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 4 of 9)
At the Madrid offices of the Association of Republican Aviators, or ADAR, the walls are decorated with posters, maps, and black-and-white photos of pilots and airplanes—most of them long gone. The shelves are lined with wooden models of Spanish Civil War aircraft. The association's insignia, the red star and wings, is everywhere.
The walls also bear color photographs of an early ADAR reunion, held at Cuatro Vientos in 1972. The association began during the last years of Francisco Franco's dictatorship, with clandestine meetings of former Republican airmen. The members still get together annually, and the organization now includes non-combatants.
"The reunions are important," says Marie Carmen Martin, who runs the office. "They bring people together from around the world to meet and to help one another." Like many in the ADAR community, she is a veteran once removed: Her father was a Republican aviator. "It's my family," she says. "My life." The organization lives on contributions, receiving no government support for its activities.
Each year there are fewer members who can recall arriving in the Azerbaijani city of Kirovabad in January 1937 as part of the first "expedition" of young Spanish men selected for flight training in Russia. One who remembers is José Bravo. "We put on Soviet uniforms," he wrote in 2007. "Our mission was ultra-secret and no one was to know that they were bringing in Spaniards. They gave all of us Russian names. I was Iosif Bravi."
After six months of training (starting in the docile Polikarpov U-2 biplane), Bravo had logged about 100 hours, only a few in the I-16. Back in Spain by summer, the new aviators went to high-speed school, then, still relatively green, to a Soviet Mosca squadron in the north, and combat. The Russian and Spanish pilots stood alerts beside their fighters on grass fields, waiting for the flares that signaled a scramble. After a few times around the field, said Bravo, "We'd head off to look for the enemy."
By then the enemy was easy to find: Swarms of next-generation German warplanes had entered the fight. The bitter winter battle of Teruel, in the mountainous region of Aragon, was the most savage combat of the war. In January 1938, Republican forces were nearly destroyed by a Nationalist counter-attack. Casualties on both sides ran to the thousands, with devastating losses in the air.
In the ADAR office's main room, Gregorio Gutiérrez García sits at a large table. Now 91, he was part of the second expedition to the Soviet Union, going over in late 1937. At the Spanish airman's school in Kirovabad he was Gutin Gregoriev, or "Guti." He returned to Spain in mid-1938.
Before going to the Soviet Union, he had fought on the Madrid front with the International Brigade. Did that mean he was political?