Saturday, April 27, 2013

Italian Air Power in Spain

During the Spanish Civil War there was no greater provider of assistance to the nationalist cause than the Kingdom of Italy and a key component of the military forces sent to aid the Spanish anti-communists was the Aviazione Legonaria. However, it must first be understood why members of the royal Italian armed forces were sent to Spain and why the nationalist cause was the right one. In February of 1936 a leftist coalition came to power in Spain but only by the most thin of margins, which was controversial enough and, if legitimate, was no doubt aided by the fact that the political “right” in Spain was (and had been) deeply divided between the feuding monarchists of the Alfonsist and Carlist factions as well as the republican nationalists of the Phalange and other minor groups. In any event, once the leftist coalition, called the “Popular Front” came to power, despite their glaring lack of a truly “popular” mandate, the radical socialists that dominated it began to call for revolution and the result was a wave of leftist, revolutionary terrorism against the very heart and soul of the Spanish nation. All political parties, organizations and newspapers that were not sufficiently leftist were outlawed, Churches were vandalized, nuns were raped, priests were beaten to death by fanatic mobs and anyone who was not a radical leftist was likely to be murdered. In the first few months of their rule in the (second) Spanish Republic, these socialist and communist radicals killed more people than had died in the several hundred years of the supposedly notorious Spanish Inquisition -just to provide a comparison.

Francisco Franco
The people of the Kingdom of Italy were shocked and horrified by all of this, particularly by the plight of their fellow Roman Catholics in Spain who were singled out for the most vicious brutality. There was also the growing concern, which would prove to be well founded, that the Soviet Union would back the republicans to effectively make Spain a Soviet satellite state in Western Europe. Given all of that, it is not surprising that when Generalissimo Francisco Franco, leader of the nationalists rising in rebellion against the republic, asked Italy for help, Mussolini was willing to provide it. This was a fight of conviction and not one of ambition or an effort to win some easy laurels. The Italian armed forces had only just emerged victorious from the hard-fought seven-month conquest of Ethiopia and aside from having a government in Madrid that would not be a stooge of Joseph Stalin, there was nothing that Italy stood to gain from intervention. Nonetheless, the intervention happened and it was undoubtedly the right thing to do. It should also be made clear that it was the Soviets who intervened first, dispatching some 2,000 “advisors” to Spain to aid the republicans in massacring their enemies as well as later sending over 240 warplanes, 700 tanks and 1,200 pieces of artillery. Given that, it is no wonder that Franco was willing to accept assistance from any quarter, be it Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany.

With Stalin demanding the entire Spanish gold reserve in return for his assistance, there can be no doubt that the republic became merely a puppet-state for Moscow and soon the government in Madrid was openly Marxist; which at least made the western liberal democracies somewhat timid about supporting the republican side too openly. The first Italian aid to the nationalists came with air power to help get the Spanish nationalist army from north Africa to Spain itself. Franco asked Rome for assistance and Mussolini answered, asking the Italian people, “Could we Fascists leave without answer that cry and remain indifferent in the face of the perpetuation of such bloody crimes committed by the so-called ‘Popular Fronts’? No. Thus our first squadron of warplanes left on 27 July 1936, and that same day we had our first dead.”

Savoia Marchetti SM.81 dropping bombs
Because the armed forces were already in need of replenishment and upgrade, the initial Italian air commitment was small; only 19 planes to bolster the 9 decrepit biplanes of the nationalist air force and the 10 German transports dispatched by Berlin. Ultimately, however, Italy would send some 720 aircraft and 6,000 air crews to aid the nationalists as well as a large contingent of ground forces (over 37,000), predominately drawn from the MVSN. These forces were almost always outnumbered by the republicans who could count on heavy support from the Soviet Union as well as the more secretive assistance of the French premier Leon Blum who smuggled arms and supplies across the Pyrenees to the Spanish Republic. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt likewise allowed thousands of American leftists to join the republican side in Spain under the name of the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade”. The League of Nations officially insisted on a policy of non-intervention but few countries paid much more than lip-service to the talking shop, Germany and the Soviet Union had never been members and Italy had withdrawn after the international finger-waving over the war in Ethiopia. In August there arrived in Spain 2 bomber squadrons of Savoia Marchetti and Caproni Ca. 135 aircraft along with original dozen Fiat fighters sent from Italy. These formed the Aviazione Legonaria which ultimately expanded to 250 planes and in the course of their service the Italian pilots would become the most successful in the world during the period between the two world wars.

There were many Italian airmen who first made their name, besting more numerous republican foes in the skies over Spain. Examples include Maresciallo Baschirotto who became an “ace” in Spain before going on to six more British planes in North Africa in World War II. There was Group Commander Ernesto Botto who earned the Gold Medal for shooting down four republican aircraft, losing a leg in the process. Nonetheless, at the outbreak of World War II he volunteered to return to the skies again to battle the British, shooting down 3 planes of the RAF over Libya where he was known by his nickname “Gamba di Ferro” or ‘Iron Leg’. It was late August 1936 when the Italian airmen launched their first attacks against the republican forces with devastating effectiveness against their strongholds in the north. Their success was so stunning that it motivated a leading French communist to take up a collection to aid the republican forces. Italy responded by sending in more squadrons to aid the nationalists. The help came just in time to play a decisive part in blunting a major republican offensive in September and by December the French-funded Escuadrilla España had lost half its aircraft and was disbanded and assimilated into the regular Spanish republican air force. But, the losses were more than made good. Stalin sent 50 Russian aircraft to aid the republicans and the French premier slipped 20 top of the line French aircraft over the border to bolster the leftist cause.

Fiat BR.20
The Russian Tupelev SB-2 bombers proved especially effective, but the nationalists found their Fiat fighters could best them if given advance warning to get above the lower flying Russian planes. The I-15 Chata fighter was also particularly dangerous and soon proved quite popular with the Spanish republicans who used them to decimate the nationalist Aviacion del Tercio. The Italian pilots quickly found themselves outnumbered and outmatched in the sky by aircraft much faster than their own, nonetheless, their superior piloting skills were still able to sometimes best the superior republican aircraft. Unfortunately, the superior number of the enemy meant that the hard-pressed Italian planes could not be everywhere at once and republican planes took a terrible toll on the nationalist ground forces at Guadalajara. This stopped a major offensive Franco had initiated and sufficiently alarmed Mussolini for him to dispatch additional squadrons of Meridonali aircraft to Spain. Although his offensive against Madrid had been stopped, the nationalists still had a ‘ring of fire’ around the Spanish capital and the republicans were determined to break it. The result was the largest air battle of the civil war

The Spanish republicans committed 150 fighters and bombers to the battle, with planes and pilots drawn from as far away as Mexico to Russia. To counter them the nationalists had little more than the Italian Aviazione Legonaria and the German ‘Kondor Legion’. Nonetheless, between them, they decimated the republican air armada, destroying 100 aircraft compared to only 23 losses for the nationalist side. Still, international leftist support for the republicans meant that even after this horrific defeat they still outnumbered the nationalists in the air by at least 122 aircraft. The victory certainly helped though and soon Franco was on the attack again, taking Bilboa in June with the help of the newly arrived Fiat BR.20 Cicogna (Stork) medium bombers and their Breda Ba.65 escorts. Bilboa and Santander were the keys to the massive northern stronghold of the republicans and Italian assistance was key in the massive offensive that broke this area and turned the tide of the civil war in favor of the nationalists. With the Aviazione Legonaria providing air support, Italian General Ettore Bastico launched a brilliant, well-planned and crushing offensive on the ground that saw the republicans defeated and Santander captured.

Breda Ba.65 
The Breda Ba.65 planes did not perform as well as had been hoped but they were refitted to serve as dive bombers and provided valuable assistance in the aftermath of the victory at Santander in the Catalonia offensive, knocking out bridges serving the republican forces. For three days in March of 1937 Italian aircraft operating out of Majorca participated in the first round-the-clock bombing campaign in history against the city of Barcelona which was sufficiently softened enough for Italian, Navarrese and Moroccan troops to capture in January of 1938. Italian victories in the air continued throughout the year with the nationalist side growing stronger and stronger as the republicans began to near defeat. By the beginning of 1939 the odds had switched and the crumbling republic could field only 100 aircraft compared to 600 for the nationalists. In March the forces of Franco finally entered Madrid and before the month was out the last republican remnants had surrendered. The nationalists were victorious and it was thanks in no small part to the assistance of the Kingdom of Italy and the hard fighting Italian pilots in the air. During the course of the conflict, the Italian air contingent flew 1,921 sorties with 59 bombing runs and 368 strafing attacks. They lost 196 men and 86 planes to enemy fire but they shot down or destroyed on the ground 903 republican aircraft and inflicted more than 2,000 casualties on the republican forces. It was a great success by any measure and a testament to the fighting abilities of the royal Italian armed forces. Perhaps the only downside was in the over-confidence these successes caused in out-of-date Italian aircraft that should have been replaced prior to World War II.                              

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