The 30's (VIII): Rearguard efforts
As the war intensified, the aerial activity of Andalusian aerodromes ebbed and flowed according to the vicissitudes of the conflict. After being used as the initial bases for franco’s aviation, Seville and Cádiz were to become important logistics centres, especially the former, with Tablada being transformed into the most important aerial facilities in the area of the uprising
While the possession of the Tablada Air Base comprised an important strategic advantage for Franco’s supporters, it was perhaps equally or even more important that it was also the site of the best aeronautical workshops in the southern zone of the peninsula, the Parque Regional del Sur.
These workshops, which were already responsible for maintenance and repairs for the units in service in the zone and even the construction of prototypes such as the four-seater Gil Pazó P-IV – were soon converted into the most important logistics centre for the nationalist Aviation, being used as the base for the reception, assembly and flight preparation of the aircraft sent from countries aiding the insurgents and the maintenance, repair and even reconstruction of those damaged in combat or otherwise. Established in 1921 and initially known simply as the Talleres del Aeródromo de Tablada (Workshops of the Tablada Aerodrome), on the date of its inauguration the Parque Regional del Sur consisted of a complex of buildings which included the Base and the workshops, all of which was completely fenced off from the exterior.
It included an underground bomb storage area; a special workshop with Berger tanks for petrol and oil with a capacity of one million litres for petrol and 200,000 litres for oil; and the aircraft hangar with a large workshop area which was used for assembly and storage of the various parts. The single entrance from the exterior via road and a rail branch line and the single exit facilitated controls and checks of the material and personnel coming to and from the facilities. The large hangar-workshop was an impressive work of engineering, with a height above ground level of 32.5 metres and a length of 50 metres. Still standing today, like the majority of the original buildings it consisted of arches of reinforced concrete with a keystone height of 17 metres which supported a roof consisting of a combination of cement and reinforced brick masonry.
This enormous construction was built by mounting the complete formwork and elevating the concrete as it was mixed using jacks, with the latest technology available at the time. Aircraft could access this large hangar directly from the airfield through an opening with a height of eight metres and a series of sliding doors which opened out on each side, with each section of the door able to be moved by a single person using a railing system. In the interior, the parts of the aircraft were assembled using electric cranes and repairs were carried out in another two secondary hangars with a height of 12 metres, which were equipped with all the latest metalwork, woodwork and textile machinery.
A fundamental role
At the outset of the conflict after Seville fell into the hands of the insurgents, the Parque Regional del Sur had to markedly step up the pace of its activities, not only to incorporate any aircraft which might be useful for the war effort but also to keep the limited units available in perfect condition. This led to a rapid increase in the number of personnel, which nearly tripled in a matter of months, often requiring the staff to be trained on the spot. In many cases, although they were skilled carpenters, metalworkers or mechanics, they were dealing with aircraft structures and engines for the first time.
Many were volunteers and at times they even came from the front, being called back because their services were more urgently needed in the workshop. In this way, although not achieving the desired efficiency they managed to make up the numbers with workers from military factories, mechanical and civil workshops and even students yet to complete their apprenticeship at Vocational Schools. The arrival of the Italian threeengine Savoia SM 81s and the Fiat CR-32 biplane fighters was not too traumatic, mainly because the crews of the first SM-81s included both a mechanic and an assembler. In the case of the CR32s, the first aircraft unloaded at Melilla on the night of 13 August also arrived with twelve airplanes (the most commonly accepted figure, although in light of the photographs taken, there were probably somewhat more), three mechanics, three assemblers and two armourers.
These first Italian technicians were responsible for directing the assembly of the fighter planes and their number was to later increase. Right from the outset, the Tablada Base was the main logistics centre for the Aviazione Legionaria, the official name given to the Italian expeditionary air force for the purposes of international law. Its members received documentation which identified them as ‘Aviadores del Tercio’ (‘Aviators of the Regiment’).
The Italian contribution later included Fiat G-50s, Fiat BR-20s, Romeo 37s and Ro 41s, Savoia SM-79s, the Caproni AP-1 “Apio” and the Ca-310, along with various other models. This was also the case of the material obtained from the Germans, although on occasions, especially in the case of secret prototypes – for example Tablada was used for Ju-87 Stukas, Messerschmitt Bf-109s, Heinkel He-111s, He-112s and Henschel Hs-123s– solely German technicians and mechanics worked on the aircraft, many of whom were civilians employed by aircraft manufacturers. At first, the German aircraft were assembled and readied for flight at Tablada. However, after the formation of the Condor Legion and the distancing of the fronts this unit established its own logistics centre at León.
At Tablada they continued to repair and service the Arado Ar-66, the Heinkel He45 “Pava” and He 46 “Pavo”, the He-70 “Rayo”, the Dornier Do-17 “Bacalao”, the Henschel Hs 123 “Angelito” and the Hs 126, the Junkers Ju-52/3m and the Ju-86 “Fumo” — this latter aircraft having the distinction of being powered by diesel engines—, the Bucker Bu-131 and 133, the Messerschmitt Bf-108 “Taifun” and many others, which were used by both the units of the Condor Legion and others with Spanish crews. Many of the Republican aircraft which were captured ended up at Tablada for their evaluation – as is the case of the Polikarpov I-15 and I-16 and the Tupolev SB “Katiuska” – or for repairs and preparation for use by the nationalist Aviation. Aircraft such as the Aero 101 “Praga”, the Vultee V1, the Lockheed Electra, the Douglas DC-2, the northrop Delta and the Fairchild also passed through the expert hands of the mechanics and specialists at Tablada.
The bombing of Tablada
Tablada had already been bombarded on 19 July, just after the base ended up in the hands of the insurgents. It was bombarded on various other occasions 20 July and 7 and 22 August during the bloody summer of 1936, with limited damage being inflicted due to the limited scope of the attacks. However, in autumn of that year a more serious threat emerged. In the month of September and for most of October the Seville Base did not suffer any further aerial raids, most likely due to the action of German and Italian fighter planes. On occasions these aircraft were also called out to Córdoba, which did suffer Republican bombardments. However, on 28 October three very fast bombers with a new design suddenly appeared, eluding the patrolling Fiats.
This time the damage was serious the bombs hit various of the aerodrome’s hangars, which were partly demolished, and the destruction of five three-engine Junkers aircraft was documented by the Republicans, although as was typical, according to the contrary version all the bombs fell in the middle of the airfield and caused little more than a hindrance. Regardless, the alarm created by these attacks was serious after the new aircraft of ‘Russian’ origin also attacked the aerodromes at Cáceres and Armilla (Granada). Moreover, the following day the “Martin Bomberg” *1 made its appearance on the front in the zone of Seseña-Esquivias-Illescas, where the Republican forces were launching a major counterattack against the columns advancing towards Madrid from the south. In these missions the Tupolev SB-2 “Katiuska” —the true identity of the supposed “American plane copied by the Russians”— clearly proved that it was faster than the Fiat CR-32s2 , the fastest aircraft in the hands of the rebels. nonetheless a patrol of these fighters over Valdemorillo piloted by Salas and the Italians Buffali and Terenzi managed to convincingly outclimb four of these twin-engine aircraft.
The Spaniard dived down and emptied his guns, leaving one of the planes lagging behind the formation, probably hit. According to nationalist sources, the bomber “crashed behind the Red lines”, but the truth is that the four Republican aircraft participating in the raid all returned to their base at Tomelloso. On the 30th of that month the SB-2s attacked Tablada again, forcing measures to be taken against these incursions. In addition to the 8.8 cm FlaK 18 AA Gun which had been installed in September at the Seville base, at the orders of the hauptmann Herman Aldinger, aerial patrols by Fiats were established and seven bomb shelters were built with a total capacity of 250 persons.
Tablada was bombarded again following this date on 1 July 1937 and 23 January 1938.
An invaluable effort
It could be said, without any exaggeration, that the Tablada Air Base and its workshops made a vital contribution to the nationalist war effort. Under their commanding officer, Modesto Aguilera, there was not a moment’s rest in the workshops and veritable miracles were achieved.
The aircraft returned from the front in a ravaged state and in a very short time, always hampered by the scarcity of spare parts and components which often had to be remade, they managed to get these aircraft back in the air. At times they even left better than they were when they arrived: the Fiat CR-32 left Tablada with a special “spaced” protective shield designed by workshop specialists which was not to reappear again for many years, along with various other improvements. One very complex job was the repair of the front radiator of this apparently simple fighter, which was very vulnerable to enemy fire because of its position. On more than one occasion their efforts earned express congratulations from on high, including an emotive letter sent by Major García Morato from the front in Aragón in March 1938 and various telegrams from General Franco himself issued from his General Headquarters.
Those distinguished for their work included the Captains Micheo, Urioste, Gil Delgado, Pazó, Becerril and Díaz Rodríguez; the Lieutenants Pons, Haya and Miraver; the Second Lieutenant del Valle; the Sergeants Blanco, Galeano, Rodríguez Jara, Sisquella and Vimet and the specialists and armourers Burgos, Coco, Cueto, Gener, Gordillo, Jorquera, López Martín, López Quiroga, Magaña, Marín Villaverde, Mora López, Paz and Platero.
The Tupolev ANT-40 or SB (Skorostnoi Bombardirovshchik, or “High Speed Bomber”) was known in Spain as “Katiuska” by the Republican Air Force, but it was known among its enemies as the Martin Bomber —written by many as “Bomberg” (')— after the U.S. twin-engine Martin 123 or XB-10 and the Martin 139 or YB-10, for which CASA had negotiated the manufacturing licence shortly before the outbreak of the war. As was typical in the West, which was totally in the dark regarding the Soviet aeronautical industry, despite its very different appearance the Soviet aircraft was considered to be a mere copy – with or without licence, that was irrelevant – of the American bomber. The Nationalist Anti-Aircraft Service preferred to call it the “S.B. 2. Sofía”. In reality these were all references to the SB-2M-100, the official name given to it by the VVS.
According to the analysis by the Technical-Control Department of the Parque Regional Sur in May 1938 of the first aircraft captured and prepared for flight, the maximum speed of the SB was 410 km/h at 4,500 m with a payload of 550 kg and a range of 1,750 km, highly superior to similar aircraft in the combat.