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Both sides liked cartoon characters, like the one on this Republican Chato. (NASM (SI 80 12995))

The War Between the Wars

In the skies over Spain, pilots and airplanes rehearsed for World War II.

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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.

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.

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