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|
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.