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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Gutiérrez prefers his beloved Katyushka. In a remembrance for the ADAR publication Icaro, he described the life of a bomber crew in the final days of the war. "The fourth escuadrilla of Katyushkas was active on every front, Teruel, Segre, Extremadura, Levante, and, of course, the Ebro. We flew almost daily, often in the morning and afternoon, without break," he wrote. Over Catalonia, "[t]he air space we had to cross was a veritable curtain of smoke and fire…. To penetrate this space, one needed well-tempered nerves. To get out…the only thing you needed was baraka...luck."

The Katyushka carried a crew of three—pilot, observer, and gunner—and had machine guns above and underneath the aft fuselage. The gunner could use both, but not at the same time; when he was on the upper gun, the Katyushka's underside was unprotected.

During a September 2 raid in the western province of Extremadura, one of the three-airplane patrols in Guti's harried Katyushka squadron became separated. Smelling opportunity, a Nationalist Fiat CR.32 dropped into position behind the bombers and took them down, one-two-three. By the time the Mosca escorts saw what was happening, the Katyushka crews had bailed out, only to be shot as they floated to Earth, or gunned down on the ground.

"Besides the powerful enemy," Gutiérrez wrote, "we also had another inside the house. When we flew any mission, we had to examine the parachutes, which were almost always sabotaged. The espionage service had information on everything. When we left, they knew in advance the date, hour, altitude…even what we had for breakfast."

What kind of targets did he hit?

Guti replies forcefully: "I never bombed a city." He doesn't need to elaborate: The German and Italian pilots' bombing of the Basque city of Guernica on April 26, 1937, remains the air war's most infamous act, immortalized by a Pablo Picasso painting. Only once, says Gutiérrez, did Republican bombers hit a concentration of guardia civil, holed up in Avila. "The Germans always sent their planes against civilians. Also the Italians."


José bravo's civil war ended at Vilajuiga on February 5, 1939, 10 days after the fall of Barcelona and less than two months before the Republican surrender. The plan was to take the Chatos and Moscas that could still fly and head for France. Bravo still has the letter authorizing the pilots to abandon Spain.

Some Chatos took off the following dawn. Then German bombers, escorted by Bf 109s, attacked the field. Bravo narrowly escaped his burning Mosca, but all his documents, including his flight log, were lost.

After the bombers rumbled away, a single "Messer" remained, staging an aerobatic show while strafing. Something—Bravo thought it must be ground fire—hit the German fighter, which fell out of a loop and plowed into the ground.

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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