The War Between the Wars

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

Both sides liked cartoon characters, like the one on this Republican Chato. (NASM (SI 80 12995))
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At the Cuatro Vientos airport on the outskirts of Madrid, a small party has gathered at the Infante de Orleans foundation's aviation museum to celebrate a new design by a local watchmaker. The timepiece is named Mosca, for a Russian-built fighter that flew in the Spanish Civil War 70 years ago. Later that day the watch will be presented to the airplane's most famous pilot, José María Bravo Fernández-Hermosa.

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On this fine autumn Saturday, both man and machine are here. As he often does on such occasions, José Bravo poses for photographs beside the olive-drab Mosca, which wears his old aircraft number, CM-249, and the seis doble—the double-six domino tile—painted on its vertical stabilizer.

The veteran ace absorbs the attention with the ease of a rock star. Affable and a bit frail at 91, he likes an arm to hang onto while the cameras flash, but it's no stretch to imagine him in this muscular little airplane. Still wearing a lapel miniature of his red-star wings, he is one of a handful of living fliers who were present when World War I met World War II in Spanish skies.

Bravo's war began in July 1936, when much of the Spanish army, led by a junta of generals, rebelled against a newly elected popular front government, a volatile coalition of liberals, communists, workers, anarchists, and separatists. The army-backed Nationalist side comprised fascists and their blue-shirted counterparts in the Falange party, along with monarchists, the aristocracy, and the Catholic Church.

Fearing a European war or a Russian-style revolution, the League of Nations decided against intervention, leaving the new Spanish government to defend itself and both sides to wage war with limited military means, particularly when it came to aviation. The Republican government's air force was a creaking assemblage of the old and slow. And even though the Nationalists controlled the army, their air force was virtually nonexistent.

Both sides also suffered a dearth of pilots, but most of the veteran military pilots remained true to the army and quickly sided with the rebels. Joaquín García-Morato Castaño, for example, was already one of Spain's most accomplished pilots when the war began. At 32, he had accumulated 1,860 hours and flown against Moroccan insurgents. Fighting on the Nationalist side, he would lead the potent Patrulla Azul (Blue Patrol) and emerge as the conflict's top ace, with 40 confirmed kills.

Only a few pilots stayed with the government. If the Republicans wanted an air force, they would have to create it from a legion of young men who had never left the ground.

First, though, both sides turned to outsiders for help. Despite their official neutrality, Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy both quickly came to the aid of the fascist-leaning rebels. Italy supplied a dozen Savoia Marchetti SM.81 trimotors. Manned exclusively by Italian crews, the low-wing Savoia transports spent the war doubling as bombers. The first German "package," code-named Magic Fire, was on its way within weeks of the war's start. Twenty Junkers Ju 52/3m transports arrived by ship, along with half a dozen Heinkel He 51 fighter-bombers and tons of spares, ammunition, and anti-aircraft weaponry. Nearly 100 German airmen were also on board as "vacationers."

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."

About Carl A. Posey

Novelist and award-winning science writer Carl A. Posey was the author of seven published novels, a number of non-fiction books, and dozens of magazine articles. He was a licensed pilot and an Air & Space magazine contributor for more than 30 years, beginning with its second issue in 1986. Posey died on February 9, 2018.

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