Although a number of American citizens flew for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, the United States learned little from their experience.
The heavens were threatening rain, but the mission was deemed sufficiently critical to justify the risk. About the middle of the afternoon on March 14, 1937, a four-plane element took off from Campo X airfield near Guadalajara, Spain. The pilots—two Americans, a Spaniard, and a Guatemalan—were flying Russian biplanes, sturdy I-15s designed by the Soviet Union’s “King of Fighters,” Nikolai Polikarpov. Painted red bands on the wings and fuselage marked these craft as belonging to the Spanish Republic air force.
Once they were aloft, the weather deteriorated, with waves of heavy rain squalls pushing through the region and a ceiling ranging from zero to barely sixteen hundred feet. The planes were heavily laden, carrying four twenty-five-pound bombs and full machine gun magazines. Mere minutes ahead was the scarred and pitted landscape across which Republican infantry units (including International Brigades) were battling to blunt the drive of thirty thousand Italian soldiers intent on capturing Madrid for the Nationalist cause.
The quartet, part of a twelve-plane squadron, had just reached the main line of resistance when they made contact with the enemy. Lieutenant Frank G. Tinker Jr., Louisiana-born, Arkansas-raised, and Annapolis-trained, saw the squadron commander suddenly waggle his wings, signaling danger. In the next instant, the leader jettisoned his bombload,an action promptly repeated by the other pilots. The formation tightened as the men anxiously scanned their suddenly hostile environment. Tinker saw what had set off the alarm; there, cruising above them and off to the left, was a gaggle of two-winged Italian Fiat CR.32s. Instinctively he followed his section leader into a tight climbing turn toward the Nationalist fighters.
“What a scramble it turned out to be!” Tinker later remembered in a magazine article. “At first the planes were so thick and traveling so fast that side shots were all I could get.” Without consciously trying, the American found himself closing on the tail of one of the Italian craft. He lined up the target and hammered a solid fifteen-second burst from the four synchronized 7.62mm PV-1 machine guns ringing his engine cowl. The Fiat went into a death spin, trailing a spume of gasoline, water, and black smoke.
Tinker’s first kill was nearly his last. He swung in behind a second Italian pursuit ship to fire several bursts that the more agile Fiat avoided before rolling into a steep escape dive. The encounter had carried the American more than a mile from his squadron mates and right into the path of a five-plane enemy formation not nineteen hundred feet overhead. Even as Tinker eyed a thick cloud bank that represented safety, the first of the Fiats made a run at him.
He’d never beat them to the clouds. Tinker now pulled a desperation ploy out of the air combat playbook. Nosing over, he headed for the cloud cover, watching the lead Fiat growing larger and larger in his cockpit’s rearview mirror. Just as it reached firing range, the American hauled his I-15 around into a sharp left vertical bank. The first Fiat flashed past without firing a round, even as Tinker completed a 360 in time to get in a short burst at the rapidly departing enemy fighter. He repeated the gut-wrenching maneuver with the next three Italians until he was close enough to dart into the protective cloud layer.
His day still wasn’t over. Tinker emerged from the foggy blanket to find himself over an unfamiliar landscape. It took another ninety minutes of worried searching before he spotted the reassuring deep blue of the Mediterranean, finally giving him a reckoning point. Tinker navigated to friendly Valencia, where he landed in the midst of a torrential downpour. Just another day on the job for an American pilot caught up in the Spanish Civil War.
The events that brought Frank Tinker and others like him into this combat zone began less than a year earlier when a weary catalogue of fractious issues tore apart Spain’s fragile democracy. The disintegration into widespread violence was itself the product of forces with deep roots in the Spanish experience.
The nation had entered the twentieth century ruled by a Bourbon king and managed by a government of economic and social elite. Denied a voice in this construct were the rural poor and industrial working classes, whose communities became breeding grounds for local versions of many of the radical “isms” then infecting the European body politic.
When a middle-class revolt resulted in the king’s abdication in 1931, and a Republican government was installed, the class lines became battle lines as the former have-nots sought redress for past injustices. A new wind howled across the country, one that was against the established Catholic Church, against the property owner, and opposed to the old ruling elite (which included a large number of Spanish army officers).
A new nationalism took hold among the abruptly dispossessed, one that drew much from another “ism”offering an alternative to social upheaval—fascism. The elections of 1936 hardened the division of the country. Lining up with the republic was an array of leftist groups,from Socialists to Communists to trade unionists and anarchists. Opposing them was a patchwork of military men, monarchists, Falangists, old-money families, and Roman Catholic reactionaries. Strands of class-on-class violence that were an unfortunate part of Spain’s cultural DNA seemed to make civil war inevitable.
A series of political assassinations that drew blood on both sides set the fuse burning. The explosion was a coup attempt by the nation’s military leaders, which erupted on July 18, 1936. Most of the country’s navy and air forces remained loyal to the republic, leaving the rebellious Nationalists (also called Loyalists) scrambling to cobble together their own naval and aerial fleets.
By just about any standard, the Spanish air force at the time was small and technologically obsolete. Its primary fighter was the French-made Nieuport-Delage NiD-52, and its standard bomber was the lightweight two-seat Breguet Br-19, both sesquiplanes. They were hopelessly outmatched by the latest generation of war machines being developed in Western Europe and Russia, although that situation would not last long.
The Nationalists had gambled heavily on achieving a quick victory. All their planning had been predicated on a rapid collapse of Republican forces. When that did not happen, the insurgent generals urgently needed reinforcements. There was the well-trained, dependable Army of Africa located less than a hundred miles away in Spanish Morocco, but with the Republican navy controlling the seas between, those troops might as well have been on the moon.
Any prolongation of the Loyalist revolt now hinged on air power. It took an appeal from General Francisco Franco through his personal agents to Adolf Hitler, who was handed the urgent request immediately after returning from a Bayreuth performance of Richard Wagner’s opera Siegfried. Hitler decided to provide the Nationalists with twenty Junkers Ju-52 transports to ferry the Moroccan units from North Africa to Spain. Befitting the operatic backdrop to the entreaty, the project was code-named “Operation Magic Fire.”
Hitler’s injection of aircraft into the conflict proved critical. Starting in late July 1936 and continuing into mid-October, the German planes carried some thirteen thousand five hundred Loyalist soldiers into Spain. Italian craft hauled in seven thousand more. It was the first militarily decisive airlift of force in history.
By this action, the failed rapier thrust against the Republican government was transformed into a thirty-three-month civil war. It also quickly became an international affair.
Just as the personal decisions of Hitler and Benito Mussolini to supply munitions and technicians (and, in Il Duce’s case, ground forces) made it possible for the Nationalists to maintain their offensive, so too did the support of Josef Stalin, through the intermediary of international communism, provide the republic with the wherewithal to continue its defense.
The Soviet contribution came with a hefty price tag. Russia never returned the $315 million gold reserve that the republic sent to guarantee its purchases. In return for their gold, the Spanish Republicans obtained two hundred forty aircraft, twelve hundred artillery pieces, and seven hundred tanks. Perhaps even as important, the propaganda apparatus of national Communist parties recast the civil war as a battle of ideologies rather than a fratricidal conflict.
In late July 1936, the Italians sent a dozen Savoia-Marchetti S.M.81 bombers, to be followed by the end of the year by the ground troops. The month of August saw the first significant addition of foreigners into the Republican military ranks. Company-size infantry units of Germans, Italians, French, and Belgians arrived, to be followed in the next months by English and American outfits, eventually numbering some forty thousand volunteers. (The U.S.-recruited Lincoln Battalion, organized in January 1937, went into action in February. By war’s end some three thousand U.S. citizens would have passed through its ranks.)
Aviation aid to the republic initially came from France, where the writer André Malraux organized an all-volunteer Esquadra España, followed by an International Squadron equipped with French Nieuports and three British Hawker Furies. The pilots were Spanish, French, Italian, and British—soon to be joined by Russians and Americans.
Most of the Americans who flew for the republic reached Spain between October and December 1936. Unlike their infantry counterparts, whose most valuable attribute was typically their enthusiasm for the cause, the pilots were recruited based on actual flight experience. They were much closer to mercenaries than volunteers, and their compensation reflected their special skills.
One of the last Americans to arrive boasted a contract that called for him to be paid $1,500 a month with bonus payments of $1,000 for each Nationalist plane destroyed. (Admittedly, this was at the high end of the scale; other Americans signed for $400 a month with no bonus payments.)
While precise records do not exist, approximately twenty-two U.S. citizens found their way into the Republican air service, though unsubstantiated claims exist for perhaps fifteen others. (Just one American, Vincent Patriarca, served with Mussolini’s Regia Aeronautica.) Some washed out right away, others never progressed beyond piloting transports, while perhaps ten saw service with fighter squadrons.
Besides Tinker, other U.S. fliers for the Spanish republic included Harold E. “Whitey” Dahl, a Army Air Corps lieutenant separated from the service due to gambling problems; Frederick Ives Lord, a Royal Air Force ace in World War I who had also knocked around in other global hot spots; Albert J. Baumler, an Army Air Corps washout; Bertram Blanchard Acosta, a barnstormer and speed racer who was known to fly with an open brandy bottle at his side; New Yorker Eugene R. Finick, an auto mechanic who arrived in Spain possessing only a student flying certificate; and Charles D. Koch, taught to fly while attending the University of Georgia by a mercenary who had worked for Pancho Villa.
One destined for tragic notoriety was Benjamin David Leider. A Russian Jew who had fled to the New World to escape tsarist pogroms,Leider didn’t know the meaning of “half trying.”While working as a journalist-photographer for the New York Evening Post, he was assigned to cover a track marathon. Throwing himself wholeheartedly into the assignment, he ran the course with the participants—in his street clothes. Leider got his story, his pictures, and finished twelfth. He was a dedicated Communist who told a friend he was going to Spain to fight the big boys.
Leider’s fervent political agenda set him apart from most, though not all, of his comrades. Eugene Finick’s idea of Americanism meant “the right of a people to decide for themselves how they’ll be governed.” Fred Lord was likely more typical when he wrote that he did not “have any political scruples or know or care what it was all about.” Lord’s sentiment was echoed by Frank Tinker, who said that when the “fighting broke out in Spain in 1936, I was not quite sure which side was fighting for what.”
The Americans reached Spain via circuitous routes, though generally in more comfort than their fellow citizens who were joining the Lincoln Battalion. Many of the foot soldiers had their way paid and were transported (third class) as far as the Spanish-French border, where they then had to make their way by foot over the Pyrenees Mountains. In contrast, most of the pilots were ticketed first class door to door. Fred Lord crossed the Atlantic aboard the luxury ocean liner Normandie, then enjoyed a night in Paris before catching a trimotor flight into Spain. Frank Tinker traveled on the same ship, but for him the route into the war involved a land crossing of the border.
He went by train from Paris to the customs inspection station. During this leg of his journey, he had the good fortune to befriend the Catalonian ministers of foreign affairs and agriculture. Once at the checkpoint, Tinker presented his newly minted Spanish passport, which identified him as Francisco Gomez Trejo. Forgetting that the Iberian patronymic fell in the middle, he failed to answer to the name “Gomez,” which aroused the suspicion of the French officials.“The guard studied my passport and gave every sign of being about to turn me back,” Tinker remembered, “when the Catalonian foreign minister whispered into his ear. The guard smiled, bowed, and I was in the hands of the Spanish guards. Forewarned by the agricultural minister, they embraced me. They did not even open my baggage.”
(Tinker’s having a nom de guerre was not unusual. Other hired fliers found it wise to hide their real names. Brooklyn native Joseph Rosemarin became Jaime Field; Edwin Lyons was known in Spain as Ed Lebowitz; Ben Leider was Jose Lando, while Whitey Dahl answered to Hernando Diaz Evans. When Arthur Shapiro was asked to pick a pseudonym, he thought a moment and said in Yiddish,“Ves nit,” or “I don’t know.” Into the ledger books he went as Arthur Vasnit.)
The first major Russian armament shipments arrived roughly contemporaneously with the American pilots. The largely French-equipped Republican air force had been losing ground against the superior Italian Fiats and German Heinkel He.51s. The introduction of the Polikarpov I-15s leveled the playing field—for the moment.
In the aviation arena, the Spanish Civil War became something of a laboratory for trying out foreign military hardware and tactics. During the course of the conflict, a number of aircraft prototypes destined for greater fame in World War II would be field tested, while theoretical operational doctrines would be subjected to the rigors of actual combat.
The large shipments of German and Italian aircraft necessitated a reorganization of forces, as both nations maintained tight controls over their aviation assets. Hitler’s contribution was a top-to-bottom, self-contained unit that included fighters, bombers, and reconnaissance aircraft, along with ground operations personnel, communications, and flak units. The German force, known as the Condor Legion, would never number more than six thousand men on the ground, though nearly nineteen thousand personnel would be rotated through it.
The Russians (who also sent personnel along with their equipment) dominated command and control over the Republican air force. They only slightly integrated their units.The Republicans also maintained their own squadrons, staffed by native pilots (many of whom would be trained in Russia) along with the foreign auxiliaries. Spanish technicians provided much of the ground support, aided by outside volunteers.
As the various groups of American fliers reached Spain, their skills were evaluated on their first assignments, with transports or bombers. Several found themselves piloting two-seater French Breguet Br-19s, which Eugene Finick later declared to a writer were “heavy and cumbersome to maneuver, and so slow it was a crime.” Besides the bombs slung underneath, the only weapons aboard some were a revolver carried by the pilot and a rifle allowed the observer, who had to first poke a hole in the fuselage to use his weapon.
During a mission against an enemy airfield, several He-51s jumped the Breguet flown by Bert Acosta. Somehow in the melee the American managed to shoot one German pilot in the face while his Spanish observer, who steadied his nerves by singing off-color songs, tagged two more of the enemy airmen. At least that’s what Acosta claimed. Whatever happened, the experience was sufficiently hair-raising that Acosta and three colleagues decided to quit. After a further series of misadventures, the four were allowed to depart the combat zone.
In January 1937, five of the Americans (Dahl, Leider, Tinker, Koch, and James William Marion “Tex”Allison) were sent to the 1 Escuadrilla de Chatos, an I-15 squadron that consisted of three four-airplane elements, or patrols. At first the Americans were allowed to fly together in what was called La Patrulla Americana. Their assignment was followed by a short but intense period of training, punctuated by drinking bouts and a few other shenanigans. A month after joining the unit, the Americans were moved up to Guadalajara, where they were sent into action.
The Polikarpovs were part of the latest— and what would prove to be the last— generation of high-performance biplane fighters. With a top speed in excess of two hundred miles per hour, the mixed metal/ fabric-skinned aircraft’s weapons were built into the fuselage, making it a more steady and reliable gun platform. Nicknamed “Chato” (Pugnose) by the Spaniards, the first I-15s to arrive in the country were powered by a seven-hundred-horsepower Wright Cyclone engine,“made in Paterson, New Jersey,” Tinker recalled.
What especially appealed to the pilots assigned to it was the nine millimeters of armor protecting them, rare in World War I fighters. The I-15 was very much state of the art, but by the end of the Spanish Civil War the era of two-winged frontline warbirds would be over.A new generation of streamlined monoplanes—boasting greater speeds and much-improved maneuverability, and capable of operating at higher altitudes— made the biplane fighters obsolete.
Initial missions for the newly arrived American pilots involved more low-level bombing and strafing than air-to-air combat. When, on February 18, the Patrulla Americana at last got into a tangle with enemy fighters, it proved a desperate encounter. The twelve-plane squadron was sweeping across the Jarama battlefield when the Spanish commander signaled danger. Frantically scanning the skies, Tinker saw what had so galvanized his flight leader. Overhead, perhaps sixty-five hundred feet above them, was what he later called a “veritable cloud”of enemy aircraft.
Afterward, when the pilots were debriefed, it was agreed that the dozen Republican aircraft had tangled with a formation of eighty-five unfriendlies. (Tinker remembered them as Heinkels, though historian John Carver Edwards’ examination of the records suggests that they were more likely look-alike Fiats.)
The Spanish commander now literally circled the wagons. He had warned his pilots that if a superior force ever jumped them, he would lead them into a Lufbery Circle. This formation, named after World War I French-American ace Raoul Lufbery, lined the squadron nose-to-tail flying a tight circular course, each pilot covering the plane in his front.Any approaching attacker would expose himself to somebody in the ring, so the enemy planes veered off from their initial dives to buzz around just outside gun range, seeking an opening. Meanwhile the Republican pilots felt their mouths go dry. “This is a last-ditch defensive maneuver,” Tinker later recalled thinking.
The battle was one of nerves, with each side waiting for the other to make a mistake. A few Nationalists executed half-hearted passes, fired some rounds at extreme range, and then slid past the wind-milling formation, appearing to leave themselves vulnerable to attack. The temptation proved too much for the brash Americans. Three broke from the circle seeking a victory. All paid a price. Tex Allison was hit after scoring a kill and, although badly wounded in the leg, managed to nurse his stricken Chato to safety. Whitey Dahl had the entire tail of his I-15 chewed off by enemy gunfire, forcing him to take to the silk.
Tragedy awaited Ben Leider when he swung out of the circle to pounce on an exposed enemy craft. Almost at once three Loyalist planes dropped down to cover their comrade. Leider’s plane, shuddering under the murderous fusillade, went into a shallow dive, its pilot seemingly searching for a place to set down. After making two aborted attempts to land, Leider lost control and died when his I-15 smashed into a hillside.
Between missions, the American pilots found themselves very much strangers in a strange land. “Our unit included Spanish, Basque, Russian, English, and American pilots,” Fred Lord wrote in 1937.“Our field was the side of a hill. Regardless of the wind, you had to land uphill and take off downhill.” Pilots in this war were issued parachutes, though Lord remained skeptical of their value,“knowing our chutes had been piled on a damp hangar floor every night and used as the guard’s bed—well, who’d trust them?”
Eugene Finick found this out firsthand when his chute failed to open after he bailed out of a stricken Breguet.“I grabbed at the ’chute on the seat of my pants and tore at it like a fool,” he recollected. “I ripped it away from me—so hard that I tore the nails off of three of my fingers, only I didn’t feel it then. Then the ’chute opened up.”
Frank Tinker reported an experience that was emblematic of the complex political elements that jumbled together in this conflict:
An incident cropped up, in connection with the removal of the propeller, which gives a good idea of some of the troubles we were faced with over there. My mechanic, Chamorro, was a Communist; Jim’s and Chang’s [Jim Allison and Vicente “Chang” Selles Ocino] mechanics were anarchists; Whitey Dahl’s was a Socialist. They got into a violent political argument that morning which ended with the declaration by the irate anarchists that, in the future, they were not going to help either each other or the other two mechanics. Whereupon the Socialist, not to be outdone, declared that if that was the case, he would not help anyone except himself, either. I helped my mechanic with the propeller for a while, but, as it was a job for at least three men, we didn’t make very much progress. Finally I went into a huddle with Jim and Whitey, and we cooked up a scheme to adjust matters.
We walked over to my plane and started looking it over and discussing it—in English,of course. Finally we got into an argument, which grew louder and more vehement. As this was very unusual, the mechanics drew in closer to see what was up.When the argument reached the red-faced shouting stage, each of us sneered at the other two and stomped off in a different direction.
The mechanics, of course, immediately asked Chang what was wrong. Chang very gravely explained that one of us was a Democrat, one a Republican, and the other an independent. He further explained that we had got into an argument over our political differences and had sworn that, in the future, we would not help one another, either in the air or on the ground.
The mechanics were horrified. What if one of us got an enemy plane on his tail and the other two refused to help him? What if we never again flew the beautiful formations they were so proud of? It was inconceivable! They immediately went into a very earnest conference, and then spent about twenty minutes persuading us to make peace with one another. We finally gave in, but before doing so we pointed out that we could hardly be of much use to one another in the air if our mechanics failed, on account of political squabbles, to keep our planes in flying condition.
They saw the moral of our fake argument and went to work on my plane at once. After that, we never did have any more trouble, as far as the upkeep of our planes was concerned.
Tinker’s first aerial victory came little more than a month following Leider’s death. While he and the other Republican pilots became absorbed in the grim calculus of daily survival, the aviation arms in Spain were establishing many of the tactical and operational doctrines that would become common in World War II. The upper echelons on both sides were loaded with foreign professionals—Germans and Italians with the Nationalists, Russians with the Republicans—who enjoyed a relatively free hand in their planning.
An early and frequent mission for the aviators in Spain was providing close air support for ground attacks. “Flying artillery”had the double benefit of being able to target more precisely, coupled with the psychological impact of aircraft having an advantage over men on the ground. Through trial and error, the commanders recognized that functional landing strips needed to be maintained close to the fighting lines and that good communications were essential for successful coordination between air and ground forces. Bitter lessons were learned on the need to effectively delineate friendly positions, as well as the necessity for ground commanders to accurately pinpoint assigned targets.
Close air support became such an important component of the ground campaigns that one U.S. military observer believed it to be “the only really new factor to appear in the tactical field since the [First] World War….” One particularly effective way of blasting holes in enemy lines was a shuttle bombing circuit. A stream of widely spaced single or paired bombers would be directed against a target and, after unloading its munitions, each plane would return to its nearby base and reload, then take a new place in the queue to hit the target once more. When all the pieces came together, a shuttle or chain (cadenas) attack could deliver a devastating amount of ordnance in a relatively small area.
Most of the close support attacks, however, were delivered by individual squadrons. Eugene Finick, piloting a Breguet that carried twenty-four bombs and four forward-firing machine guns, took part in an aerial attack on Nationalist ground forces at Jarama.“The strategy was to open up the guns at one thousand meters and dive to an altitude of four hundred meters above the trenches,”he wrote.“With three planes and twelve machine-guns unleashed simultaneously, that stream of fire is hell. Then when we were directly over the trenches we’d let loose our load of bombs—seventy-two bombs from a group of three planes. No human beings can really stand it.” Finick, who survived being shot down in June 1937, was eventually discharged and sent back to the United States.
The other major component of Spanish Civil War air operations was strategic bombing—strikes penetrating deeply into enemy territory, targeting enemy transport, airfields, manufacture, and military reserves and resupply. According to a report filed in February 1938 by the Condor Legion commander, Field Marshal Hugo Sperrle: “We have notable results in hitting the targets near the front, especially in bombing villages which hold enemy reserves and headquarters.We have had great success because these targets are easy to find and can be thoroughly destroyed by carpet bombing.”
One of those great successes, at least from a German air operations perspective, was the strategic bombing of the Basque town of Guernica. While the concentrated German air bombardment closed a critical road and rail system for a day, it also wreaked havoc on a cultural and historical treasure, not to mention amassing a stiff butcher’s bill of civilian casualties that provoked worldwide outrage. (Ironically, just about everyone involved in actions such as this concluded that strategic efforts against civilian targets meant to lower citizen morale simply did not work.)
Another operational lesson learned from the strategic bombing campaigns was the absolute need to provide strong escort for strike forces. Faced with fighters, unprotected bombers usually aborted their mission or missed their targets wildly, so providing ample cover became a regular fighter pilot task.
Tinker’s second victory came against enemy bomber escorts. Flying another dual-purpose mission on March 20, he and his squadron mates spotted three Junkers accompanied by seventeen Fiats. After hastily dumping their bombloads, one Republican flight went for the heavy planes while the other two tackled the fighters. In the ensuing melee, Tinker shot a thirty-second burst into a Fiat pilot. “His plane immediately went into its final spin and crashed into the ground some forty-eight hundred feet below,” he recalled.
To carry out their strategic and tactical missions, the major powers behind the competing air forces dispatched their newest warbirds to Spain for what U.S. Army intelligence termed “the practical test of war.” The Russians sent their most advanced monoplane, the Polikarpov I-16—nicknamed “Mosca” (Fly) by the Republicans and “Rata” (Rat) by the Nationalists— which boasted a retractable undercarriage and enclosed cockpit. The Germans hurriedly countered with the Messerschmitt Bf-109, destined to be a Luftwaffe mainstay in World War II.
Several models of other German craft later to be well-thumbed silhouettes in British plane spotter handbooks also made appearances in Spain, including the Heinkel He-111 and the Junkers Ju-87—the celebrated “Stuka”dive bomber. The I-16s held their own against the early 109 models; not until much-improved later editions of the Messerschmitt fighters were introduced would the Russians be routinely outclassed.
Frank Tinker assured himself of at least a footnote in American military aviation history on July 13, 1937, when he downed a Bf-109 in air combat near Madrid. Tinker’s flying skills were such that his Russian superiors had upgraded him to the I-16, a plane that the American discovered “had to be handled very gently….Most of the controlling had to be done with ailerons and flippers. Very little rudder was required, even in steep banks.” The mission this day was escorting bombers; the opposition, according to Tinker, was “practically the entire enemy air force.”
For more than an hour the two sides careened and clawed their way across the sky. Tinker saw a Republican I-15 under attack from what he recognized as “the new enemy monoplanes.”Before he and his two Russian wingmen could reach the stricken aircraft, it was smoking and spiraling down, barely under control. “However,” said Tinker, “I managed to get on the tail of the leading enemy monoplane and pumped bullets into it until it burst into flames.” This was his sixth confirmed kill, though his celebration would be muted when it was learned that his buddy, Whitey Dahl, had been piloting the I-15 he had failed to rescue.
Tinker would down two more planes, a second Messerschmitt on July 17 and a Fiat CR.32 the next day, making him—with eight—the highest-scoring American flier in the Spanish Civil War. By then the constant strain of combat was exacting its toll on Tinker. After almost shooting up a friendly Russian bomber, he checked himself out of the war. He departed the roiling peninsula by August 1937, one of the last of the American fliers to leave. The first graduating classes of Russian-trained Spanish airmen would quickly replace him and the rest of the high-priced foreigners, save the Russians, who would remain in Spain until Stalin pulled them out in early 1938.
Most of the departing American aviators were touched by the idealism and spirit of sacrifice demonstrated by the Spanish people they had been hired to defend.“I always believed that Fascist dictators are the worst menace to freedom that exists in the world today,” wrote Eugene Finick.“I felt that the Spanish people were getting a raw deal.”
“I had fought side by side with a nation of people who were not fighting a war of aggression, who were not fighting to conquer new territory or to enslave another race,” declared Fred Lord, “but who were fighting that they themselves might live and that their young republic might not vanish from the face of the earth….I have fought in other wars and been heaped with honors and medals, but I had never before come across the kind of glory you find in Spain.”
Nationalist forces, with a significant assist from the Condor Legion, successfully split Republican Spain in two by April 1938. In September the Republican prime minister sent his foreign ground fighters home by disbanding the International Brigades, perhaps hoping to pressure the Germans and Italians to do the same. (They didn’t.) In late 1938 and early 1939, Loyalist offensives overran the remaining Republican enclaves. General Franco declared victory on April 1, 1939. When they finally decamped (the Condor Legion only returned home in June), the Germans and Italians left behind enough equipment to allow the new Spain a disproportionately large air fleet.
The aviation lessons of the Spanish Civil War were almost all learned by the Germans. Close air support for ground operations had been a part of Luftwaffe operations before the Iberian conflict, but the Condor Legion experience validated it as primary doctrine. Stalin’s subsequent purge of many of his Spanish Civil War combat leaders seriously limited the transfer of hard-won experience to the Soviet forces that would first confront Hitler’s blitzkrieg.
While it is clear that the U.S. military did not ignore what was happening on and above the battlefields of Spain, some of the lessons—most notably the need for strong fighter escort as part of any bomber offensive—would have to be relearned in World War II at great cost in lives.
For the most part, the young American fliers who survived Spain found it hard to reintegrate into U.S. society. Whitey Dahl survived his second downing only to find himself a prisoner of the Nationalists, charged with choosing the wrong side.After a show trial and a guilty verdict (sentence: death), he was pardoned and allowed to return to America. Dahl lived on the fringes of the aviation industry for the rest of his life, dying while piloting a Douglas DC-3 that crashed in northern Canada in 1956.
Bert Acosta also fell between the cracks on his return, fighting a never-ending battle with alcohol. He died in 1954.
Albert Baumler served with the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, adding five Japanese planes to the four he’d shot down in Spain, and did a later tour in Korea as an air traffic controller. During that latter assignment, he came to realize that some of the Russians flying for the North Koreans might have served alongside him in Spain.
Frank Tinker also wound up on the outside looking in when he returned to the States. He wrote a vivid memoir of his experiences that was serialized in a major national magazine and later published in book form. Tinker claimed to have offered to share his hard-earned experience with the Army Air Corps, but there was no debriefing, although various corps officials had closely monitored the military events in Spain. After some dispirited knocking around, he appeared to have gotten back on track by successfully applying to serve with the Chinese air force.
For reasons never satisfactorily explained, Tinker checked into a Little Rock hotel on June 13, 1939, emptied a bottle of scotch, and shot himself. The medical examiner ruled it a suicide. He still had friends from the Spanish adventure who mourned his passing. One was an American writer of note, who had shared drinks with the flier and even argued politics with him. A short story from his pen drew from those encounters by describing several expatriate U.S. fliers unwinding on the evening before they were to return to the front.
When Tinker’s memoirs appeared, the writer found them honest in spirit and accurate in much detail.“Did you read Frank Tinker’s articles in the [Saturday Evening] Post?” Ernest Hemingway asked a friend. “They were damned good.”
Noah Andre Trudeau is a frequent contributor to MHQ. His latest book is Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage (HarperCollins, 2002). He is currently working on a study of Sherman’s march from Atlanta to Savannah.
Originally published in the Summer 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.