Belchite August 1937

The Republican offensive at Belchite on 24 August 1937 was paralleled by an attack at Teruel, on the 'elbow' of the front line. Although Belchite fell on 6 September the Republicans did not follow up their advantage immediately; new thrusts were made on Huesca in the Pyrenean foothills on 22 September, but had made little progress by 6

October. On 15 October one of the most successful Republican air operations of the war took place. Y.S. Ptukhin led his R-Z escuadrilla and four units of fighters (the 1-15 squadron led by Serov and the

31. Heinkel He 11 IB of the Legion Condor. These aircraft were later handed to the Nationalists after more modern E models had arrived from Germany for K/88. The first Spanish He 111 unit, 10-G-25. went into action during the Battle of the Ebro in August 1938. (Franz Selinger)

Testpilot Suprun
33. A group of Legion Condor personnel pose with a Bf the more successful pilots, as can be seen by the seven 109B during 1938. This aircraft has been flown by one of victory bars painted on the fin. (Franz Selinger)

1-16 squadrons of Gusaev, Smirnovand Yeromenko) in an attack on the Nationalist airfield of Gara-pinilias near Saragosa; three Ju52/3ms, a number of He46s and six CR.32s were destroyed. That morning Red fighters had already shot down five CR.32s of the 'Gamba di Ferro' group over Belchite.

Yet another Republican push at Teruel preempted a planned Nationalist winter offensive at Guadalajara; Teruel fell on 7 January 1938, but was retaken by Franco soon afterwards. Air operations were intense, particularly on 19 January, when 400 Nationalist aircraft flew sorties all day, dropping some 110 tons of bombs. Late that month a Red counter-attack stabilised the front once more. In response to regular attacks on Barcelona launched from the Balearics, SB-2s - now manned largely by Spaniards - bombed Seville and Valladolid on 26 January. A reprisal raid on Barcelona by nine SM.79s two days later killed 150 people; and on 6 February the Republican government left the city, where it had moved from Madrid in 1936, and transferred to Burgos.

In December 1937 23 more CR.32s gave Franco two new escuadrillas; 3-E-3 served within 2-Q-3 temporarily, but when 4-E-3 appeared the two made up the new 3-G-3 in January 1938. By March each grupo had three escuadrillas, many He51 pilots transferring to Fiats. On 7 February violent dogfights flared up over the river Alfambra, a weak Republican sector north of Teruel where Franco launched an offensive. The Bfl09Bs claimed ten SB-2s and two I-16s, four bombers falling to Obit. Wilhelm Balthasar of 2.J/88. The Legion Condor recorded its hundredth kill over Teruel in January - a figure which would be more than tripled in the next fourteen months. The thrust into Red territory made progress, and on the 17th a new southwards drive was launched; this saw the belated operational debut of the Stukas, which achieved a high reputation for accurate bombing. The faithful Hsl23s were handed over to the Nationalists. Seven Republican fighters fell to the Messerschmitts on the 21st; but a leading Nationalist bomber pilot, Capt. Carlos Haya Gonzales, who was flying a CR.32 with the 'Assi di Bastoni' that day, died in a collision with an 1-15.

On 6 March 1938 the greatest naval battle of the war took place by night off Cartagena, and was won by the Republic. Next morning I-16-escorted SB-2s bombed surviving Nationalist ships, but reaction was swift. Forty-five new HelllEs had arrived to re-equip all four Staffeln of K.88, and 25

of them now attacked Red naval bases, putting the battleship Jaime I out of action for the rest of the war.

On 9 March a new Nationalist offensive got under way in Aragon; Belchite fell on the 10th and Montalban on the 13th. On the 22nd an attack near Huesca made good progress, and by 5 April Franco's troops could see the Mediterranean glittering in the distance. On the 15th they reached the coast at Vinaroz, between Barcelona and Valencia, splitting the Republic in two. Heavy air fighting accompanied these ground actions; Nationalist ground support was vigorous, with the inevitable price of heavy He51 losses. The Republican Grumman 'Delfins' of Grupo num 28 operated in the light bombing and strafing role, losing four shot down and two destroyed on the ground during February. Legion Condor air raids on Republican airfields were notably effective during this period. On 16 March three days of raids on Barcelona from Majorca began with an attack by six He59s, and sixteen other attacks followed in quick succession. In 72 hours 1,300 people were killed and 2,000 injured. One result was the re-opening of the French border and the consequent release of blocked war material, including 22 1-16 Type 10s which allowed the formation of a new 6a Escuadrilla de Moscas and the reinforcement of the other five. There was no shortage of replacement aircraft as government factories at Sabadell and Reus were turning out I-15s at a good rate; that they were necessary was underlined by the 40 victories claimed by 2-G-3 alone between December 1937 and April 1938.

Operations in Aragon continued. On the northern part of the front Franco advanced right up to the French frontier, reaching the line Balaguer-Lerida, while an advance southwards from Teruel made good progress late in April before slowing to a gruelling slogging-match. The persistent Nationalist efforts to reach Valencia were finally held in July. In April five four-gun Bfl09Cs arrived for 3.J/88, which now gave up ground-attack sorties. Command passed from Obit. Galland to Obit. Molders - two names which were to become household words in fighter circles within two years. The last He51s went to the Spanish, who formed a second 'Chain' unit, Grupo de Cadenas 4-G-2. Another SM.79 unit arrived from Italy that

Fiat Legion Condor
34. A pair of Arado Ar 68E fighters were supplied to the Spanish Nationalist Grupo G-9 for operational night fighter trials. The first of these aircraft is seen here at La Cenia airfield. (Hans Obert)

month, the 30° Gruppo joining the 29° Gruppo to form the 1110 Stormo B.V.

Early summer 1938 saw Russian personnel finally withdrawn from the Republican air force; Stalin saw the Republic as a lost cause, and was intent on his vast, insane purges. Although 200 Spanish aircrew had been trained in Spain and 600 in Russia, most were still novices; the quality of opposition to Nationalist air operations now showed a marked deterioration. Many of the Russians had gained valuable experience and had achieved good results. Anatoli Serov seems to have been the most successful fighter pilot, with either sixteen or thirteen kills. P. K. Rychagov claimed fifteen, and I. T. Yeremenko fourteen. I. A. Lakeiev, who had returned home in July 1937 after flying I-15s and commanding the la Escuadrilla de Moscas, had at least twelve victories. This score was equalled by S. P. Denisov and V. I. Bobrov. It has been suggested, but not confirmed, that the famous test pilot Stepan Suprun flew in Spain and claimed twelve to fifteen victories. The claim that the Bulgarian Goronov ('Zakhar Zakhayinov') was top-scorer with 22 kills is believed to be spurious. Many Hero of the Soviet Union awards were made for Spanish service, but most senior officers and many leading pilots with Spanish experience died in purges soon afterwards.

Despite the division of the Republic, communications along the coast were possible and the war

Heinkel Legion Condor
35. The Fiat BR 20 bomber was also employed in Spain by the Italians from mid-1937 onwards, though never in such large numbers as the SM 79s and SM 81s. An aircraft of the 35° Gruppo Autonomo Misto is seen in flight during 1938. (Nicola Malizia)

went on; about half the available air strength was maintained in each sector. Although personnel had been withdrawn, 99 more 1-16 Type 10s arrived by early summer 1938, and the six 'Mosca' escuadrillas were brought up to full strength. One of the best days for Republican fighters came on 22 May, when 22 victories were claimed, including two of the fast SM.79s. Losses also rose sharply, however, particularly in the north, where about 30% of available aircraft were lost each month. The government now planned a major offensive here, with a more limited attack in Estramadura. In view of their now-limited resources this plan was a fatally costly mistake, ending the war much earlier than might have been the case if a defensive posture had been maintained.

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