The Spanish Civil War ended on 1 April 1939. Nationalist General Francisco Franco became dictator thanks to the intervention of his German and Italian allies. But in doing so, Germany in particular prepared to lose an even greater conflict. This article is based on captions written for a display of model aircraft at the Jet Age Museum, Staverton, Gloucestershire to mark the 80th anniversary of the end of this sometimes neglected yet historically important conflict.
On 17 July 1936 Franco and other Generals launched a coup against Spain’s Republican government. But with Spain’s navy and air force staying loyal to the elected regime in Madrid, Franco needed outside help to bring his own troops across the Straits of Gibraltar from Spanish Morocco. This was achieved between July and October 1936 with the first ever military airlift by German Junker 52 (pictured above) and Italian Savoia Marchetti SM 81transport aircraft.
As both France and Soviet Russia sent aircraft, tanks and other aid to the Republican government, German dictator Adolf Hitler sent his Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion to assist Franco’s Nationalist forces. Although the Soviet Polikarpov I-16 monoplane proved to be superior to the German Heinkel He-51 biplane fighter (pictured above), the Condor Legion had better pilots and tactics.
These included bombing Republican fighter aircraft while they were on the ground refuelling between missions and developing the “finger four” formation of fighter aircraft to supercede the closer groupings that had developed in World War One. Still used by air forces today, a finger four comprises two pairs of aircraft with a wingman trailing behind his leader. The technique was pioneered by Lieutenant Werner Molders who became the leading German ace of the Spanish Civil War.
The conflict in Spain also saw the use of bombs containing poison gas ( by the Italians at Barcelona on 18 March 1938) and the dropping of “flambos” – oil and petrol based incendiary and fragmentation bombs – the ancestor of napalm. On 26 April 1937 the Condor Legion used terror bombing for the first time against the population of the northern Spanish town of Guernica, with fighter aircraft strafing civilians as they fled. This inspired many artists to record their horror at the atrocity, including Pablo Picasso’s famous painting “Guernica”, a copy of which now hangs in the United Nations in New York to remind delegates of the horrors of war.
Air support proved particularly effective when Nationalist troops had to attack Republican strongholds in remote mountainous areas but the Luftwaffe left Spain with the belief that fast, well armed bombers could defend themselves against enemy fighters during daylight attacks. And that victory could be achieved with close support aircraft rather than strategic bombers.