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 8 of 9)
When the Soviet Union offered the pilots a Russian future, however, most were quick to accept. But Fernando Medina was among those who escaped and returned to Spain to await his fate. The crews were told that their aircraft were to be handed over to the Nationalist victors at Barajas, Madrid's major airport. On March 29, nine Katyushkas took off from the Republican base at San Clemente, along with six more from Tarazona, 12 Chatos, and a score of Natashas (Polikarpov R-5s).
"We landed in Barajas in the early hours of the morning," Medina would recall. "We were ordered to form up and remove our flying gear, including our leather jackets. All our equipment was shared out among their soldiers."
The next day, the aircrews were taken to the prison at Porlier. "I was tried and sentenced to death in Valencia on August 25, 1939," said Medina. "For seven months I waited for the sentence to be carried out. Seven months of watching comrades and friends pass on their way to their execution."
In the offices at ADAR, Calvo crosses his wrists in pantomime. "At 20, I am in handcuffs." He nods playfully at Guti, who is slightly stouter. "The reason he is healthy is he was eating," Calvo says, hands moving over an imaginary bowl, "while I…" He imitates working a pick at hard labor.
José Bravo got another war. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Bravo and other Spanish airmen living in Russia served as partisans until a chance encounter with a former Soviet boss put them back in fighters. The last airplane Bravo flew was a Bell P-39 Airacobra, in 1948.
In the mid-1950s, Spanish exiles began returning to their homeland, through a program of repatriation arranged by the International Red Cross. Bravo returned in 1960, and was promptly interrogated about Soviet military facilities (the cold war had made Franco an ally of the West) put under surveillance, and allowed to work only as a language professor and translator.
"When Franco died" in 1975, Gutiérrez says, "the government let us reclaim our rights." He is listed on the Spanish air force rolls as a retired comandante. Calvo and Bravo are retired air force colonels. Largely because of the efforts of these men to win recognition for their accomplishments, Spain now recognizes the ranks and pensions of all Republican veterans.
As for the victors, the German Condor Legion went home in May 1939, followed by the Italians. Germany would invade Poland in September, a month after cutting a non-aggression deal with Stalin. In the war that followed, Luftwaffe pilots would refine the tactics they had introduced in the skies over Spain.