In the summer of 1936, during the early phase of the Spanish Civil War, the loyalist and rebel forces struggled for the control of the Balearic archipelago. Because of the nature of the area of operation, the fight became a confrontation of air and naval forces, in which the Savoia S.62 seaplanes of the Spanish Aeronáutica Naval played a prominent role. (Above, there is a picture of a newly built Spanish S.62, that has just come out of the arsenal of Barcelona).
The Aeronáutica Naval had begun to reequip with Italian seaplanes at the beginning of the 1920's, while the country was engaged in the war in Morocco. In 1929, the works of Barcelona began building the S.62 armed reconnaissance seaplanes under license from SIAI Savoia.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, the majority of the officers and the troops of the Aeronáutica Naval sided with the Republic (which is interesting, since the Air Arm of the Spanish Navy had been established by a royal decree, on September 15, 1917); and the Spanish naval seaplanes spearheaded the invasion force that attempted to regain full control of the Baleares on the part of the loyalist forces.
An S.62 in the auxiliary naval air base of Marin, in 1933.
The following is a translation of a chapter of a 1981 Italian book byAngelo Emiliani: "Italiani nell'Aviazione Repubblicana Spagnola," that is, "Italians in the Spanish Republican Air Force," published by Edizioni Aeronautiche Italiane srl. The chapter was entitled: "The Catalan Expedition to the Balearic Islands." I thought it was interesting, because it dealt with an almost ignored episode of aviation history, in which the aircraft involved were almost exclusively seaplanes, and almost all of Italian origin.
The Spanish government of the Second Republic had reestablished the Catalan "Generalidad," that is, the autonomous government of Catalonia. Nevertheless, it is not clear to me on what basis the Catalan administration had the authority to organize an invasion force that entailed the use of the military assets of the Spanish central government (the author of the book takes quite a bit for granted, and does not explain it). Any clarification would be welcomed. I hope you will be able to follow the action on the charts I have included in the translation; and your comments, as usual, will be greatly appreciated. Thanks,
THE CATALAN EXPEDITION TO THE BALEARIC ISLANDS.
(Angelo Emiliani. Translated by L. Pavese)
During the brief period in which the Republicans attempted the retaking of the Balearic Islands, the European embassies and capitals wove an intricate diplomatic web. The behavior of the Italians in particular gave rise to some tension. First there was the unrequested deployment of several Italian aircraft, and there followed the arrival in Majorca of Arconovaldo Bonacorsi (1898-1962), a Bolognese Fascist leader, who called himself Conde Rossi (Count Rossi) and claimed to be a personal friend of Benito Mussolini. The “Red Count” took over the de facto defense of the major Balearic island, and removed from power the local authorities accusing them of incompetence.
|The Count in Majorca|
With respect to the Spanish war, Great Britain maintained an ambiguous position, but not when her domination of the seas and her role of guarantor of maritime traffic was threatened. The Britons repeatedly refused to recognize General Franco’s right to extend the war outside Spanish territorial waters, and later they showed great resolve calling for the Convention of Nyon (in September of 1937), officially to deal with the issue of piracy, but in reality to demand that the German and the Italian warships stopped shooting on the freighters heading to the Republican ports.
From an aviation history point of view, there is an episode that preceded the invasion attempt that is worth remembering. On July 19, 1936 (two days after the beginning of the rebellion) General Manuel Goded Llopis, one of the leaders of the insurrection, flew to Barcelona from the Mahon Naval Air Base (on the island of Minorca) with five Italian seaplanes Savoia S. 62 (license-built in Spain) to take charge of the revolt.
One of the seaplanes (S-10), flown by pilot and flight instructor Francisco Casals, had remained behind in Palma de Majorca, by now in rebel hands, with engine troubles.
Valencia, 1936. A ground-crew is removing the protection sheath of the four-blade wooden propeller of a naval S.62, number S-18.
When the moment of surprise had passed, the rebels on the shore began to shoot at the airplane that was getting away rapidly towards freedom for the pilot and captivity for his guard.
April 1932: a Spanish naval Wal over the Mediterranean.
At the beginning of the uprising, on July 17 1936, the other seaplanes in Majorca were the three Dornier Wal’s of the Aeronáutica Militar, which were grounded in Pollensa (on the island of Majorca) without the reduction gearboxes of their engines, removed for maintenance.
The commander of the base (on the northern coast of Majorca) was Captain Beneito, who knew that almost all the armed forces on the island had joined the rebellion and asked for help from the Prat Naval Air Base in Barcelona, and prepared to defend the base with all the men at his disposal.
Off the coast of Cape Formentor, a Dornier Wal of the Aeronáutica Militar (the air arm of the Spanish Republican Army), launched from Barcelona to aid the besieged forces, sighted the small boat with which aviation mechanic Gerardo Gil Sanchez and three other men were trying to reach Mahon. The men on the boat signaled the flying-boat to alight on the water, and when they climbed aboard they informed the aircrew that the base had fallen.
The reconnaissance flights, and the missions to launch light bombs on the islands controlled by the Nationalists, began right away with the use of seaplanes, including the light Macchi M.18’s, which mainly flew liaison flights between Barcelona and Mahon, sometimes even three times a day. Every morning the aircraft dropped on Palma de Majorca freshly printed newspapers from Barcelona, and baskets of bread, still warm, that the local authorities forbade the people to gather.
An M.18. Almost all of the Spanish M.18's had folding wings.
On the 24th of July Inca, Alcudia and Pollensa were bombed; and on the following days Palma de Majorca was hit by the S.62 and by the Dornier Wal D-1. On the 28th the Wal flew to Palma twice, the first time on a propaganda flight and the second time on a bombing mission.
The old Macchi M.18’s got into the action on the 29th, over Palma and Son Bonet; and on the airfield of the latter they destroyed a private touring aircraft (which was probably the De Havilland DH-84 EC-TAT).
With the cooling system of one engine out of service, the Wal was forced to alight in a small bay of the island of Cabrera. All the attempts to keep the Wal, now with both engines out, away from the shore of the island controlled by the rebels, were frustrated by the wind that inexorably blew the seaplane towards land. Meanwhile, armed militiamen had arrived on the scene to capture the Republican crew.
A motorsailer sailed from Barcelona, with a few hundreds fighters aboard, heading for Mahon, which was to become the main base of operation. Pereira’s Macchi M.18 was in charge of patrolling the route between the Catalan capital and Minorca.
On the same day, the Navy ship Almirante Miranda took to the sea, heading for Valencia. Aboard the vessel there were Captain Bayo, charged by the Catalan government with leading the expedition, and about fifty sailors/infantrymen of the Aeronáutica Naval, who constituted the more disciplined group of the entire invasion force.
|Enrique Pereira Basanta|
Captain Bayo assumed the lead of this very heterogeneous force, in virtue of his authority as the chief of expedition forces of the Catalan Generalidad. But the contrasts between Bayo and Uribarri began right away, mainly for the strong nationalism that characterized the two men. The consequences could not have been but deleterious for the expedition, and culminated with the withdrawal of most of the forces that had come from Valencia on the 15th of August, right on the eve of the landing.
Meanwhile, the action had also begun above the island of Ibiza. One Macchi M.18 from Barcelona launched a lot of propaganda material on the major towns of the island, to prepare the psychological terrain for the demand of surrender.
Two days later, after the besieged rebel forces on the island rejected the request, the ships Almirante Miranda and Almirante Antequera headed for Ibiza. Two miles from the coast, the Almirante Miranda sent out a launch with a few members of parliament aboard, charged with attempting to reach an agreement with the rebels and avoid bloodshed.
The six seaplanes, flown by Freire, Pelayo, Armario, Molina Pereira and Rivas launched an attack against the fortress of Ibiza, unloading all their bombs on the castle from low altitude.
The landing on the island was postponed to the following day, August 9, in the bay of San Vicente, at about 32 nautical miles from the capital city. After overwhelming a weak resistance, the Navy infantry of Llirò and Iznar, and the militiamen from Valencia, occupied the village of San Carlos. On the evening of the same day, the S. 62’s alighted in the small harbor of Ibiza, and the aviators were housed in the fortress.
In the course of a quick inspection, to evaluate the damage inflicted by the morning bombing, Pereira realized that the damage was basically non-existent. The 26 lbs “Hispanya” bombs may have been effective against vehicles or personnel, but they were obviously useless against fortified targets.
While the events that led to the taking of Formentera and Ibiza by the Republicans were taking place, the main force, destined for the invasion of Majorca, continued to flow to Mahon. The bombing missions intensified, and struck new objectives of the island.
The omnipresent S. 62’s attacked Felanitx on August 8, Campos on the 10th and Son Cervera on the 12th. In the course of the action against Campos, the seaplane of Eduardo Guaza descended to a very low altitude to strafe an aircraft on the airfield (probably a DeHavilland touring airplane), and became the target of very violent anti-aircraft fire. The damaged Savoia seaplane was forced to alight on the water near the island of Cabrera, and reached later Mahon in tow of a submersible boat.
Suddenly though, on the 19th of August, three unknown aircraft appeared in the sky over Majorca. They were three Italian SIAI S.55X seaplanes. Devoid of camouflage and insignia, the aircraft had been probably flown directly from Italy to the bay of Pollensa, and they engaged in action right away. Within a few hours, the S. 55X’s bombed the Republican positions (causing little damage but a lot of confusion) and the ships that shuttled between Mahon and the combat zone, including the hospital ship Marques de Comillas.
A couple of days later the three Italian catamaran seaplanes were sighted in the port of Palma, by the S. 62’s. The attack was immediate. The S. 62’s of Freire (with Captain Beneito himself aboard), Molina, Rivas, Armario, Pereira, Alonso and Obradors make several single file passages at low altitude, launching bombs, grenades, and strafing the targets. All the S.55X’s were hit.
To the attackers it looked like one of them was half-sunk (and it would actually be finally destroyed on May 16, 1937), but the other two were still afloat. The following day, after having quickly fixed the damages, the S.55X’s left Majorca, never to be seen again.
The local well-to-do people became very prodigal with money and donation of jewelry in the fund raising drives for the purchase of weapons (the drives were probably organized to galvanize the population, and give some credibility to the rumors of the arrival of reinforcements, fed also by the presence of Italian ships in the harbor of Palma); but few people actually took up arms and went fighting. Even among the rebel officers, many believed that the capitulation was near, a fact that caused frictions and led to trials and demotions.
The Republicans, however, were not able to take advantage of this state of affairs. Although it is true that the defection of Uribarri’s men had weakened the invasion forces, an equally negative effect was due to a great deal of improvisation on the part of the government forces, and to the difficulty in leading the various groups. The various units answered first to their respective leaders, very often elected (like in the case of the anarchists) regardless of any military consideration. Furthermore, during the last ten days of August bad weather limited the activity of the seaplanes of the Aeronáutica Naval, that represented the only element of superiority over the enemy, and the ammunition also began to get scarce.
On the 28th of the month the weather improved. Captain Bayo ordered the seaplanes to fly over the combat lines at low altitude to improve moral, and to alight on the water at Cala Moranda, in front of the beach of Punta Amer. The intention was to redeploy the aircraft in more direct contact with the fighting zone, and allow them to intervene more quickly.
One of the Macchi M.41 seaplane-fighters that arrived in Majorca on the evening of July 27, 1936, with three FIAT CR.32's.
Shortly after noon, while Molina, Alonso and Riva were working at their S. 62’s to prepare them for the flight, a compact and very fast biplane broke into Carla Morlanda. The men, caught by surprise, were not able to identify the airplane, but they understood right away that it was not one of theirs.
A FIAT CR.32, with the colors and insignia of the early phase of the Spanish Civil War.
That night, the news of the death of Freire reached the Punta Amer. Freire’s S.62 had taken off from Cala Morlanda with aboard Captain Beneito and a Republican fighter with a serious belly wound, who had to be flown urgently to Mahon to have surgery. The FIAT CR.32, flown by Guido Carestiato, intercepted it. (Carestiato, 1911-1980, was a famous Italian aviator and test pilot).
Some time later, Molina sighted the downed seaplane and, fearing the worst, alighted nearby. Helped by his mechanic, Molina was able to drag the damaged seaplane and secure it with the anchor line to the tail of his airplane. Then the unusual convoy started towards a ship that was approaching at full speed. It was the freighter “Mar Negro,” that hoisted the damaged seaplane and its crew aboard.
The 29th was another black day for the Republican forces. One CR.32 returned to Cala Morlanda and strafed again the two S.62’s that had been hauled ashore, putting them out of service for ever; while three S.81 bombers (one with the Italian civilian registration I-FAND) reached Majorca with a direct flight from Italy.
From that moment on, the small but determined rebel air force that defended the island controlled the field. Captain Bayo pleaded with the Generalidad Catalana for fighter aircraft to counter the attacks of the Italian aircraft against the units that insured the provisioning from Mahon, and the ground forces which were taking heavy casualties. But neither in Catalonia nor anywhere else, there were any available aircraft capable to match the Italian fighters and bombers. The few Nieuport 52 were indispensable on the Aragonese front, and trying to counter the threat of the CR.32’s with the old Martinsyde's would have been suicide.
The evacuation of the Republican forces from the Baleari began on September 4, in orderly fashion and with no casualties. To avoid discouraging his men, Bayo spread the voice that the objective of the operation was to attempt another landing in a location closer to Palma. All the men and almost all the weapons and material were saved.