Spanish Civil War: Nationalist Air Force

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Master Sergeant
Jan 1, 2010
The Spanish Civil War arose out a variety of factors, chiefly the election of a Republican government made up of a shaky alliance of various centrist and leftist elements. The Second Spanish Republic instituted a number of controversial reforms which led to a revolt by conservative and monarchist ("Nationalist") forces, led at the outset by a military insurrection on the part of General Francisco Franco and other Nationalist generals. Sides were immediately taken amongst the international community, with Mexico, the Soviet Union, and the volunteer International Brigades supporting the Republicans and Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany supporting the Nationalists. The support for the Republican side was mainly in the form of material support from the Soviet Union, and it was slow in coming. Conversely, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany almost immediately joined in their support of the Spanish Civil War with troops, aircraft, tanks and other weapons. Among other political reasons for supporting Nationalist Spain (establishing a Fascist power in Western Europe, threatening France, etc.), Nazi Germany had military reasons as well. To quote Hermann Göring, commander of the Luftwaffe, at the Nuremberg trials (tribunals whose purpose was to prosecute war criminals after World War II):

"When the Civil War broke out in Spain, Franco sent a call for help to Germany and asked for support, particularly in the air. ... I urged him [Adolf Hitler] to give support under all circumstances, firstly, in order to prevent the further-spread of communism in that theater and, secondly, to test my young Luftwaffe at this opportunity in this or that technical respect."

In the Spanish Civil War, the Luftwaffe would receive the first major test of its tactics of aerial combat and in the support of ground forces. The Condor Legion, a unit of the Luftwaffe created especially to support the Spanish Nationalist forces, would participate in bombing missions, troop movement, and fly against experienced Soviet pilots supporting the Republicans, thus gaining vital experience in the blitzkrieg which would later be put to use in Poland. The event which would characterize the Condor Legion's involvement in Spain and create a deep impact on the Luftwaffe and the other nations of Europe would be the bombing of Guernica (now Gernika-Lumo) on April 26th, 1937. At the time, Guernica was the center of Basque culture and government, and an important Republican stronghold, interposed between Nationalist forces and the northern Republican city of Bilbao. The Basques (Euskaldunak) are an ethnic group of Northern Spain and France which had supported the Republican government in exchange for autonomy. Despite the fact that Guernica had not by this point actively participated in the war, it was considered a military target in that it housed some Republican battalions, and its defeat by Nationalist forces would cut off Bilbao from other Republican forces, thus speeding Nationalist victory in Spain's north.

The assault on Guernica by the Condor Legion began in the afternoon and consisted of several waves of bombers with their escorts (mostly Junkers Ju 52 and He 111s in the first waves, with the Bf 109s supporting later raids and strafing the roads) dropping explosives onto the town below. The principal targets were the roads and a bridge to the east of Guernica, the destruction of which would block an enemy retreat. Although the pilots were given orders not to directly target civilians, the bombing led to many civilian casualties. (The exact numbers are disputed, but the estimate is between 200 - 1700.) The bombing shattered Guernica's defenses and the Nationalist forces quickly overran the town. The bombing of Guernica received lots of international attention from the press and inspired the famous painting by Pablo Picasso.

In Spain, the Luftwaffe gained experience in using their aircraft technology to achieve air superiority and to support ground forces. These lessons learned would serve the Luftwaffe well as World War II would begin in the East and in the great aerial battles, such as the Battle of Britain. At the outset of World War II, because of the experience gained during the Spanish Civil War, the Luftwaffe would be the most prepared for the new strategies of war that would emerge in this period. While sources vary on the number and type, most agree that 130-140 Messerschmitt Bf 109's served in Spain: approximately 4 prototypes, 40+ Berthas, 5 Claras, 35 Doras, and 44 Emils. By early 1939, when the 109E's arrived, the Republican opposition had nearly collapsed; twenty of these models were left behind for Spain's air force. Bf 109 pilots like Werner Moelders and Wolfgang Schellmann distinguished themselves in Spain. Moelders is credited with developing the "finger four" formation, which became the standard fighter formation for decades. Moelders scored 14 kills in Spain, the top German ace of that conflict. Over 200 German pilots flew with the Condor Legion, gaining precious combat experience that would serve them well in WW2.

Note: This thread is a remake. I am going to add more information and new pictures, but it will basicly contain all the data provided before.


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When the Spanish Civil War began, Germany gave massive support to Francisco Franco, including supplying aircraft for his air force. After the Soviet Union started supplying the Republicans with modern fighters, Germany sent in the latest model Bf-109s. The first unit became operational in 1937, and it drew first blood for the German fighter on July 8 when Bf-109s shot down two government Tupolev SB-2 bombers. One of the pilots involved in that action, Guido Honess, later became the first Bf-109 pilot to killed in combat just four days later while attacking another SB-2. Honess was shot down by an I-16 monoplane fighter flown by Frank Tinker, the highest scoring American to fly in the war. Bf-109s also took part in the infamous attack on the town of Guernica. The Bf-109 was the most modern airplane in the war, but was only available in limited numbers. Even at the height of German involvement, there were never more than 60 of the fighters in operation in Spain, in contrast to six squadrons of Soviet-made I-16s. The clear superiority of the 109 over anything the Republicans could field made up for the disparity of numbers, and then some.

The Spanish Civil War made the Bf-109's reputation, and it gave Luftwaffe pilots that flew in it vital combat experience and led to the development of more flexible fighter tactics which gave the German pilots a great advantage in the first year of the war before the Allies adapted. In many ways, the experience of the Bf-109 in Spain paralleled that of the Mitsubishi Zero in China.


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Bf 109 types used in Spain

Bf 109 V-3: This machine was quite distinctive, and had, in addition to the two Mg 17 above the engine cowling that would become standard on all Bf 109s, an engine-mounted Mg 17 (or possibly an Mg FF 20 mm cannon) firing through a cut-down propellor boss. The wheels were also larger than on subsequent aircraft, necessitating bulges on the upper surface of the wing to house the retracted landing gear.

Bf 109 V-4, V-5 and V-6: Much less is known about these aircraft, and few photographs seem to exist, but they are all thought to have had the same general arrangement, with armament confined to two Mg 17s mounted above the engine. These aircraft served as the pre-production versions of the Bf 109 B. All lacked the under-wing oil cooler found on later prototypes and production aircraft.

Bf 109 A: Fitted with Junkers Jumo 210 D engine. Armament consisted of two Mg 17 guns above the engine cowling. Fitted with a 2-blade fixed-pitch wooden propeller, oil cooler mounted under the port wing, behind the middle fo the chord. The first aircraft had spinners that were slightly smaller than the forward cowling, so exposing small annular air intakes around the propellor. The seams between fuselage panels may have been taped, since they are not clearly visible on photographs. Wing slats were full-length.

Bf 109 B: The fixed pitch propeller was replaced by a variable-pitch Hamilton propeller (this was also associated with the ability to fit an Mg 17 mounted between the engine blocks, but it is unclear how often this was fitted). Three large cooling slots were cut into the top and one into the bottom of the forward cowling to increase gun and engine cooling. The underwing oil cooler was also repositioned slightly further forward on later machines. Shorter wing slats were also introduced during the production of the B series.

Bf 109 C: Fitted with Junkers Jumo 210 Ga engine, which had direct fuel injection (giving increased high-altitude performance). Armament increased to four Mg 17s by the addition of one Mg 17 in each wing (the muzzle of which was within the wing). The exhaust ejector stubs projected from the sides of the cowling rather than being flush as in previous models. The position of the oxygen filler and electrical socket on the starboard side of the aircraft was also moved from under the cockpit to further back on the fuselage

Bf 109 D: Reverted to the Junkers Jumo 210 D engine, but had the additional wing guns. A new tailwheel design (without the "scissor" link found on earlier aircraft) was introduced, 'though it is unclear whether this was a characteristic of all D versions, or was introduced during the life of the D series.

Bf 109 E-1: Powered by the Daimler-Benz DB 610 engine, driving a three-blade propellor. An entirely new nose shape resulted from the installation of this engine, as well as new under-wing radiators. There were numerous other minor alterations which mean that Bf 109 Es are quite distinctive from most angles.

Bf 109 E-3: As the Bf 109 E-3, but with the wing guns replaced with 20mm Mg FF canon, which had muzzles that projected beyond the leading edge of the wing. Laureau gives 6•107 as a Bf 109 E-4, although this may simply be a misprint (The E-4 had a redesigned canopy with less rounded framing to the windscreen).

(Source: Spanish Civil War aircraft - Home Page )


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Surviving Aircrafts

Messerschmitt Bf 109 E-3 (Munich/Germany): The probably oldest, displayed Bf 109 is shown at Deutsches Museum in Munich. This plane (serial number 790) was produced in 1939 and was flown by the 2./J88 in Spain, carrying the code "6 o 106". After the Spanish Civile War, the Bf 109 was left in Spain and was used by the Spanish airforce. Until 1954 it was used by many fighter squadrons.Willy Messerschmitt, councelling Hispano Aviations, tried to transfer one Bf 109 to Germany, to show it at Deutsches Museum. The Spanish agreed and chose this plane, being in its original shape as last "Spanish" Bf 109. In 1960 the plane came to Munich, painted in the colors of JG 26. For the exhibition, it was recolored with the delivery colors and got the code "AJ+YH". In 1974 it was again recolored. It now got the markings of a Bf 109, flown by Werner Mölders, during his time with the JG 51. A number of small openings were cut into the fuselage, providing a view of the interieurs of this plane.


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Like a number of German aircraft which were designed and built in the 1930s, the He 111 was planned from the beginning for a dual-purpose role. The first was in a legitimate civil capacity, during which the engines and airframe would be developed to good standards of reliability, or modified as necessary to attain such high standards. The second role was for military usage by the Luftwaffe which, at the period when a number of Germany's most successful wartime aircraft were being designed and/or developed, was still a clandestine organisation. The prototype - an all-metal low-wing monoplane powered by two 447kW BMW VI in-line engines - flew for the first time on 24 February 1935. The wings were of semi-elliptical planform, fitted with hydraulically operated trailing-edge flaps, the tailwheel-type retractable landing gear also being hydraulically actuated. Very clean in appearance, the prototype (in bomber configuration) was able to accommodate an internal bomb load of 1,000kg, and was armed with three machine-guns in nose, dorsal and ventral positions. Flight testing proved that, like some British bomber aircraft of the period, its performance equalled or even bettered that of contemporary fighters.

The second prototype was completed as a civil transport and was handed over to Luft-Hansa following the termination of early testing. Subsequently, this aircraft reverted to being used by the Luftwaffe for secret high-altitude reconnaissance missions. Many such missions were flown prior to the outbreak of World War II, both by military and civil aircraft, so that long before wartime operational missions were flown, the Luftwaffe had acquired very detailed documentation of a vast number of important targets. The fourth prototype was completed as a civil airliner with accommodation for ten passengers in two cabins. Named Dresden, it was delivered to Luft-Hansa on 10 January 1936 and given the full glare of press publicity. Six production airliners, He 111C named Breslau, Karlsruhe, Koln, Konigsberg, Leipzig, and Numberg, enured service from the summer of 1936.

He 111B-1 production bombers began to enter Luftwaffe service in late 1936 and, like many German military aircraft of that period, were blooded first in the Spanish Civil War, gaining valuable experience. The first two mass-production versions, He 111 E and He 111 F experienced great success during the Spanish Civil War, where they served with the Condor Legion as fast bombers, able to outrun many of the fighters sent against them. In the case of the He 111 it proved somewhat misleading: since its performance was superior to that of opposing fighter aircraft, it could operate unescorted.


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The successor of the Heinkel He 70, the Heinkel He 111 (nicknamed Pedro while in service over Spain) was an excellent design from the hands of the brothers Siegfried and Walter Günter. The first 4 prototypes, which took the air in 1935, only had one major drawback, they were underpowered for use as a modern bomber. However from the fifth prototype (He 111V5 (D-APYS) / He 111B-0 series) onwards, Daimler Benz DB 600s of 960-1000 hp were mounted to give the aircraft more than sufficient potential for a warbird. Due to the intense lobbying by Oberleutnant Rudolf, Freiherr von Moreau, Hermann Goering approved to send the most modern of the German bombers to Spain in February 1937. The first shipment consisted of four He 111B-1s, together with four Dornier Do 17E-1s and four Junkers Ju 86D-1s to form Versuchsbomberstaffel 88 (VB/88) within the Legion Condor. Under Moreaus command this Staffel (based at Salamanca) had to evaluate this modern equipment under operational circumstances.

As soon as the 9th of March 1937 the Pedros flew their first operational sorties against Alcalá de Henares and Barajas and at the end of March these four aircraft were already transferred to the northern front and stationed near Burgos to take part in the offensive against Bilbao. During these operational conditions it was experienced that the ventral retractable gun turret caused so much drag when extended that it reduced speed too much for optimal combat conditions. So an order was given to lower this gun position only when there was direct contact with enemy fighters. Another cause of drag were the big radiator intakes below the engines. This was partially solved in the He 111B-2 by mounting DB 600 CG engines with smaller and more aerodynamic air-intakes.

Meanwhile, deliveries of He 111B-1s were continued to replace the Junkers Ju 52s within K/88. Four He-111s (25-5 225-8) were delivered in early July 1937, twelve more (25-9 25-20) one month later. At the end of August von Moreau and his veterans returned to Germany, the aircraft and replacement crews of VB/88 became part of the newly formed 4.K/88, and in October 1937, when the northern campaign came to an end, the process of replacing the Ju 52 in the bomber role by He 111s was completed. At that time K/88 had some 50 Pedros in its inventory of which some 22 were He 111B-2s. The He 111B-1s were numbered from 25-1 to 25-40, the He 111B-2s from 25-41 to 25-62. This pictorial overview however will deal with the first 40 Pedros only.


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This aircraft was shot down on the 10th of March 1938 by a Polikarpov I-15, almost fulfilling the picture and the description painted on the fuselage side. The picture shows Mary dancing with a skeleton and the description means something like Sparkling Marys fourth desire. Luckily enough the crew managed to escape from the burning wreckage and were made prisoners. The crew consisted of Kurt Kettner (observer), Theo Kowollik (radio operator ), Karl Hofmeister (flight engineer) and Heniz Clacery (observer). They were exchanged for Republican crews on the 2nd of January 1939.


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On the 13th of June 1938 Peter (the mascot of the crew of 25-15) was killed in a dogfight with a Republican Polikarpov I-16. After this mission a picture of the Scottish terrier was painted on the tail of the aircraft (Peter Its the Scotch was painted on a fresh layer of grey on both sides of the rudder). During the process of transfer to 1.KG/88 the text Peter 13.6.38 and Im Luftkampf über Sagunto was added above und under the picture of Peter on small fresh layers of grey. Note the kind of old fashioned German style of lettering.

Peter is clearly visible in these pictures. Note that the profile is quite correct (besides maybe the color of the radio mast and the too small size of the diving eagle emblem), but the artwork shown on the backside of the Squadron Signal Publication Heinkel He 111 in action, though very nice , is not. The lettering shown on the rudder is in the more European style as used while the aircraft was assigned to 4./KG88 (see further on) and the color at the front end of the spinners has to be white.


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