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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Galland became a Condor Legion legend, flying in swimming trunks, a cigar clamped in his teeth, his face blackened by gun smoke and engine oil. Leading the Mickey Mouse squadron (named for its pistol-toting rodent insignia), he honed the ground-attack abilities of the He 51. He developed carpet bombing to flush miners from caves in the northern province of Asturias, and, with his mechanic, brewed up a bomb called the flambo—a precursor to napalm.

Italy's air corps in Spain was known as la Aviazione Legionaria. With the Italian pilots came more trimotor bombers, along with Meridionali Ro.37 ground-attack biplanes. Italy's main gift, however, was the highly maneuverable, potently armed Fiat CR.32, which in Spain was called the Chirri.

Help came to the Republican side as well. Josef Stalin agreed to provide men and matériel, although not entirely for love. Airplanes were available at retail prices, to be paid in Spanish gold. By mid-October the Soviet Union shipped 30 SB-2 Katyushka (Little Kate) fast bombers. Designed by Andrei Tupolev, they were smooth-skinned, with a low cantilevered wing and two big Wright-Cyclone-type radial engines. These were joined by the agile Polikarpov I-15 Chaika (Sea­gull, for its gull-like upper wing), which the Spanish would call Chato  (Snub-nose), and Polikarpov R-5s and R-Zs, which were used for reconnaissance and light bombing.

Then, in early November, Spain received the first Polikarpov I-16 monoplanes. In an age of two-wingers, this speedy fighter had a single, low, cantilevered metal wing and retractable landing gear, plus a 1,000-horsepower radial engine up front. The I-16 was called Yastrebok (Hawk) and, at home, Ishak (Little Donkey). In Spain it was called Mosca (Fly) by its friends, Rata (Rat) by its enemies. By any name, the I-16 was at the time of its debut the most advanced fighter ever sent into combat.

Soviet volunteer pilots came over even before the airplanes arrived, and soon were given Spanish noms de guerre. Yakov Smushkevich became General Douglas, Colonel Pyotr Punpur became Colonel Julio, fighter group commander Pavel Rychagov, Pablo, and so on. By late November, 300 Soviet pilots were flying for the Republican side, which, having lost the early air war, soon fought back to reclaim the sky over Madrid.

Volunteers from other countries also flocked to the Republican cause. Eager to fight against the fascist rebels, the French writer André Malraux came over with a gaggle of lumbering Potez Po.540 twin-engine bombers—familiarly, "flying coffins." Although he never piloted an airplane, Malraux survived more than 60 missions. But his involvement in the war was short-lived. By January 1937 the flamboyant polymath was gone, and more than half of the several dozen Po.540s sent by France had been destroyed.

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.

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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