The 30's (VI): A bloody summer
In July of 1936 the climate of deep political division which had marked Spain for more than a decade sparked an attempted coup d’état which, following its failure, inevitably led to a cruel and fratricidal war which lasted nearly three years and tore the country apart. Aviation played a crucial role in Andalusia and was the key enabling the rebels to consolidate themselves on the Peninsula. Tablada was the starting point for intervention by Italy and Germany.
Written by Juan Antonio Guerrero.
The result of the elections on 16 February 1936, with the victory of the Socialist Popular Front coalition, led to the logical change of command at the Tablada Air Base in Seville. lieutenant-Colonel Martínez Esteve, ex-member of the Elcano Patrol on the flight from Madrid to Manila ten years previously, took command of Squadron No. 2 and the Base itself. The aerial units at the Base were limited to the Group 22 Cooperation squadrons of Breguet XIXs (previously “light Bombers”), which were reduced in number due to the transfer of one of the three squadrons to Madrid. The Southern Regional Fleet also included ten Ni-52 fighters from the former Group 12 of Granada in various states of repair and upkeep. Meanwhile, the Aero Club had four Monocoupe 90 light aircraft owned by members (a fifth was located in Malaga), four DH-60s owned by the Aero Club itself, an ASl Fiat, a Miles Falcon, a Fairchild and the C-19 of the Marquis of Pressa de las Torres.
A nervy vigil On the afternoon of 17 July the uprising was initiated in Melilla and on that same night lieutenant-Colonel Yagüe, then commander of the Army in Africa, occupied key points in Morocco despite the resistance offered by the Atalayón Hydroplane Base, the High Commission and the Samia Ramiel Aerodrome. In the Sahara, Cape Juby remained loyal to the Government and its aerial fleet— three Fokker FVIIs— received orders to transfer to Seville, where they arrived that same afternoon. However, as soon as the aircraft took off the aerodrome joined in the rebellion. Meanwhile, at 01:00 hours on the 18th of August at Tablada, Martínez Esteve received orders to prepare the bombs and fuel for three Fokker FVIIs of the lAPE (Spanish Postal Airlines). Confiscated by government order on the afternoon of the 17th, these were to join the aircraft of the Colonial Squadron from Cape Juby in Seville. The 2nd Squadron prepared 700 12 kg bombs.
It was obvious that the Government was planning to bomb the rebels in Morocco and thereby quell the attempted coup. On the morning of that day, the F.VIIb planes of the Madrid-Seville line and the Seville-Canary Islands line were already at the base.
At around 5 p.m. in the afternoon the DC-2 ECEBB Sagitario arrived from Barajas, positioning itself between the control tower and the bomb hangar, in parallel opposite the doors at a distance of around 50 metres. Although it was late and despite the oppressive heat, when the crew disembarked they were surprised to find “all the heads and officials of Tablada in front of the barracks”. They were even more surprised to find that the Fokker located in the interior from the Canary Islands had flat tyres. The sensation that something was not quite right grew when the mechanic Macías headed to the lAPE building and saw that the light aircraft of the Aero Club were lined up on the field in full sunlight and learned that they had been there since the previous night. lying in the shade of the larache mail barrack hut, Macías could also see various civil pilots of the Aero Club, including Flores Solís, Camino and Bay, seated as if waiting for something to happen. And things did indeed occur shortly afterward.
Immobilised on the ground
Captain Carlos Martínez Vara de Rey, a sympathiser of the rebels, makes a very early morning visit to the ‘mastermind’ behind the coup in Seville, Commander Cuesta Monereo, where he learns that General Queipo de llano is in Huelva and plans on taking over the Seville garrison, but that he will not arrive until midday to give him time to fool the Huelva authorities. Vara de Rey returns to Tablada and, looking to gain time and with the assistance of various other accomplices—Salvador, Medina, the depot chief Scala and the master armourer Jorquera—, he gets his hands on as many bomb fuses as he can from the armoury, secretly transferring them to his room in the Official’s Pavilion. While a bombsight is being installed on the DC-2 and an improvised bay in the door to launch the bombs which were stored on the seats, Vara de Rey asks Corporal Romero for his rifle —Serrano de Pablo as Private Mellado calls him. He then approaches the lAPE plane with his car and goes down on one knee and shoots at the plane, hitting both wheels and perforating two engine cylinders.
The crew return the fire with pistols while Vara de Rey, with no ammunition in his gun, runs to hide in the troop barracks with a bullet injury in the groin, hotly pursued by the pilots and mechanics of the DC-2 who in turn are under rifle fire from the rebellious officials who are shooting from the rail in front of the radio station. Two of them —the mechanics Mota and Macías—throw themselves to the ground and run amidst the bulls, which are alarmed by the noise, until they manage to escape, while Vara de Rey, who is being chased by the pilot Tonda and the radio operator Martínez Amat, among others, is captured by Tonda.
Another of the rebels, lieutenant Medina, then intervenes, pointing his gun at the pilot’s breast and forcing him to release Vara de Rey. At that time Martínez Esteve appears, who manages to calm things down, ordering Vara de Rey to be arrested and sending him to the Guardhouse, where he is attended to by the Doctor Captain Méndez león prior to his supposed transfer to Military Prison. He later orders his transfer to the Military Hospital to protect him from his fellow soldiers.
Tablada changes hands
Although Commander Martínez Esteve arrests Captain Aguilera and Captain Carrillo —who had presented themselves as Queipo’s emissaries — and Commander Azaola, who tries to convince him to go over to the other side, he refuses to obey the orders to bomb the Seville barracks already under rebel control “to avoid causing civilian injuries”. This indecisive attitude leads to the fall of the Base to the rebels: once they have taken control of the city and threaten to blow up the base, Esteve hands over command to Azaola and allows himself to be placed under arrest. In the meantime, a second DC-2 brings spare parts from Madrid to repair the aircraft damaged by Vara de Rey and place it back into service and a Puss Moth arrives piloted by Captain Rexach of the Aeronautics Department. The Douglas and one of the Fokkers take off to bomb larache and return directly to Madrid, while the other Fokker is repaired just in time to escape with the lAPE staff: the pilots Gou and Xuclá, the engineer lahera and the mechanics Mota and Macías, supposedly under fire from the machine guns and rifles of the rebels according to the latter, although this seems fairly unlikely. It is seven in the afternoon and the plane is flying over Seville.
They still have time to see the troops marching through the Puerta Osario Gate with the tricolour flag at their head. From that time on, Tablada becomes the most important trump card for the uprising, which now has a privileged location from which to deploy the aircraft at its disposal and the best logistics facilities. Soon to arrive is the first Ju-52/3m seized from lufthansa on the 17th at Villa Cisneros, where it is ordered to land so that it is not at Gando with Franco’s De Havilland Dragon. With its crew and still with German registration and markings, it takes Franco to Berlin to seek aid on the 24th of August. Four days later it is followed by twenty more, instead of the ten aircraft requested (German assistance was generous), which leave Berlin on the 27th on their way to Tetouan.
The next day they initiate the so-called ‘Aerial Bridge of the Strait’, with flights to Tablada and Jerez where the makeshift Zarandilla Camp is established near la Cartuja. This is not the only help they receive: they are soon joined by the first Italian contingents, a dozen tri-motor Savoia S-81s, of which three were lost during the flight from Elmas, in Sardinia. This important reinforcement was to play a decisive role to support the operation for Franco's first naval convoy across the Strait, attacking the Republican destroyer Alcalá Galiano which sought to prevent the crossing and contributing to the "aerial bridge".
These are followed by the first Italian Fiat CR-32 fighters, which are unloaded on the night of the 13th of August in Melilla from the Italian ship Nereide. Disassembled and still in their boxes, they are transferred to the Nador aerodrome for assembly and from there they go to Tetouan. The first two land at Tablada, piloted by lieutenant Vittorio Cecherelli (called Vaccarese in his legionnaire documentation— and Salvadori Salvo—, at 12:40 hours on the 17th of August. None of those present could have imagined at that time the long relationship which these elegant Italian sesquiplanes would maintain with the Tablada Base for many years afterwards.
On the 6th of August, German assistance intensifies with the arrival at Cadiz of the steam ship usaramo from Hamburg, belonging to the Nazi labour Front. Its passengers, 87 youths dressed in plain clothes (suspiciously with the same cheap suit, however) were “going on a summer holiday” with the false tourist organisation "Reisegellschaft union" (union Tourism Group). The ship unloads six Heinkel 51 fighters and ten tri-motor Ju-52 bombers—in addition to the nine luft Hansa sent by air—, an 88mm AA gun, twenty 20mm AA guns, medicine, three radio transmitters, gas masks, ammunition and spare parts. After this material is transferred to Tablada, the Southern Regional Fleet assembles them with the assistance of German technicians, a task which they carried out during the entire course of the conflict and which involved countless numbers of aircraft of all different kinds and origin.
The bombing of Tablada
On the 19th of August, at 23:00 hours, two of the Republican Fokkers bomb Tablada for the first time, and although the aircraft are hidden amidst the trees, one of the bombs kills Corporal Romero. Seven hours later two DC-2s repeat the attack, again causing little damage. On the 22nd, the now functioning captured DC-2 returns the favour in Madrid, launching more than thirty 50 kg bombs over the capital. It is piloted by Captain Carlos Haya with the mechanic Correa, the Guil brothers —one of which is radio operator and the other armourer — and the Corporals Ruiz and Gómez.
During the rest of July, Tablada is a hive of activity, including the Workshop, which puts the remaining 7-10 Nieuport fighters into the air. These are soon joined in Granada by another three from Getafe, which are sent without the government knowing that Armilla is in rebel hands. They carry out their first services on the 20th of August, at times flying from Córdoba. At the other Andalusian Air Base, Armilla (officially known as the "Dávila" Aerodrome), at the time of the uprising the staff of the former Group 12 fighter group were still stationed there: Captain Pérez Martínez de Victoria and the lieutenants Guerrero García, Peñafiel Calahorra, Bermúdez de Castro, Correa Guerrero, Valiente Sánchez and Ruiz Cappa, as well as the Second lieutenant Valenzuela Extremera.
Two pilots, a sergeant and a corporal, were on leave and never returned to the Base. Almost all the officials were sympathisers of the rebels. Accordingly, when on the 20th they receive orders to hand over command to Captain Muñoz del Corral, who arrives in a CASA-Breguet XIX from the School of Shooting and Bombardment at los Alcázares (Murcia) — as is later confirmed by the Aviation Department in Madrid—,the official on duty, Miquel Guerrero, refuses to do so.
Eventually, Muñoz del Corral manages to take control and orders the departure to los Alcázares of the two Breguets based there and the ground evacuation of the staff, specialists, mechanics and troops on duty, in a column of vehicles led by the Captain Doctor Bort Albalat. The following day, upon its arrival at Almería, this small unit effectively contributes to quell the uprising in this Andalusian city, together with the bombardments by two Breguets and a Nieuport from los Alcázares. They then continue their journey to los Alcázares on the 24th. Meanwhile, the officials who remain in Granada take control of the aerodrome. On the 21st, thinking that Armilla was still under its control, the government sends a patrol of three HispanoNieuport Fighters from Group 11 at Getafe, piloted by lieutenant Juan Prieto, Sergeant Gerardo Martín and Corporal laurentino lozano, who are taken prisoner after landing. The former went on to serve for the rebels, while the two subofficials, who were mechanics, no longer provided flight services, being forced to join the ground staff of the Granada base due to understaffing after its evacuation.
The pilots of the Aero Club
Right from the beginning the pilots of the Aero Club joined the uprising and formed a provisional squadron. They carried out numerous missions, basically reconnaissance and communications to establish a complete picture of the zones and towns near the capital, the situation of which was unclear as sides were taken. Some of these, such as Manuel del Camino, flew in military aircraft, but the majority joined the nationalists with their light planes and flew over towns in an attempt to determine the situation, bringing news, arms and provisions to isolated forces and at times coming under fire from popular militia and Republican defenders. These civil pilots included Álvaro Gil Delgado, Fernando Medina and Fernando Flores Solís, among others.
They soon suffered their first casualties, with the downing of one of the planes at la Roda instantly killing Sebastián Recasens Queipo de llano and Tomás Murube Turmo. In total, during the conflict 17 members of the Aero Club were killed in action, including famed pilots Manuel Vázquez Sagastizábal, the above-mentioned Manuel del Camino and Jose María Osborne Vázquez, to name a few. According to Querol Müller, the log of Aerial Operations included 440 flights from 20 July through to 27 December of that year, with the loss of two aircraft, the one mentioned previously downed at la Roda and another which crashed at Cáceres on 20 August. At the time of the attempted coup the other Andalusian Aero Club at Malaga had two light planes, the Freüller Valls and a Monocoupe 90A, and a single pilot, police officer Francisco Quintas Álvarez, at the service of the government authorities.
The “aerial bridge”
The insistence of Queipo de llano, the precarious overlord of a Seville dotted with barracks, led on the 20th to a flight by a Fokker transport plane with a lieutenant and nine legionnaires of the 5ª Bandera unit to Tablada. Hours later another flight arrived with a sergeant and ten legionnaires.
On that same day a third FVII tri-motor joined them, making a total of 41 legionnaires by the end of the day. On the 3rd of August a Fokker FVIIa acquired in Tangier entered into service. The fact it was only a single-motor three-seater made it less useful, except in the early, desperate moments when the rebels had to attend to more immediate needs. The Fokkers and Dornier Wals — and two pairs of Breguet XIXs sent from larache and Melilla— alternated transport flights with attacks and bombing of naval units harassing the rebels, first from Tangier and later from Malaga. Even so, in the first five days the FVIIs, making six daily flights, transported some 450 legionnaires and regular troops, a figure which is clearly insufficient to call these actions an "aerial bridge".
On the 25th this small transport fleet was joined by the Douglas DC-2 sabotaged by Vara de Rey at Tablada and on the 28th the lufthansa Ju-52 D-APOK "Max von Müller" returned from Germany after eleven flying hours from Berlin — now without the excuse of the requisition but with the same pilot, Captain Alfred Henke. The following day it joined the troop transport efforts in Tetouan after getting rid of its civil registration.
From this time onward, the crossing of the Strait was to have a clear German accent, until becoming a completely German operation following the progressive incorporation of the remaining Ju-52s and crew sent by Hitler. During the month of July 2,063 troops were airlifted from Morocco with their gear but the rhythm—and the aircraft used— continued to increase to reach a total of 23,393 men and 400 tonnes of war supplies at the end of November.