After the quick success of the Condor Legion’s actions in the Spanish Civil War, the Legion was reconstituted as the Condor Legion (Kondor Legion) at Condor’s headquarters in 1936. The Legion undertook a number of missions during the Spanish Civil War, with disastrous results. The Condor Legion’s air power was instrumental in the German Condor Legion’s early successes in Spain.

In World War 1 the German Luftstreitkräfte (Air Service) managed to achieve a high level of air superiority during their early days, but as the war progressed, they found air superiority was half the battle.  With the German advances in aviation technology and tactics, they were able to deliver massive payloads of bombs from their strategic bombers. This coupled with the strategic bombing campaign during the war, helped Germany achieve a great strategic victory over the Allies.

The Legion Condor had been established in 1933 as a German volunteer squadron of the Condor Legion, and was inactivated in 1934, and then reactivated in 1940 as a unit of the Luftwaffe. The Condor Legion was a joint British-French organization that trained and equipped air forces of the Third Reich, using these air forces to operate in areas of the European periphery that were not under German control. On August 1, 1940, the Legion was renamed and reorganized, first as the Condor Legion Fliegerkorps, and later the Fliegerkorps “Condor”.

During the Spanish Civil War, the Condor Legion, a group of German pilots, developed their hunting skills in Spain’s skies.

The German Condor Legion made a brilliant coordinated attack against Spanish Republican forces during the Battle of Brunete, some 15 miles west of Madrid, in the first week of July 1937. Heinkel He-111 bombers targeted both strategic and tactical targets, while Messerschmitt Bf-109B fighters flew top cover to maintain air supremacy. At the same time, Heinkel He-51 biplanes strafe and bombed infantry and anti-aircraft guns from below 500 feet. The biplanes arrived in waves of nine, wingtip to wingtip, each carrying six 22-pound fragmentation bombs that were dropped at the same time. The ensuing bloodshed shattered the morale of the warriors who survived. The assault was so effective that the advancing Spanish Nationalist infantry were within hand grenade range of the Republican defenders by the time the Heinkels finished their runs. The Condor Legion’s outstanding aerial fighting techniques developed during the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War are exemplified by that beautifully coordinated strike.

During World War I, the capitalists of neutral Spain benefitted from the belligerents’ purchases of coal, zinc, copper, pyrites, and textiles. However, the conflict’s inflation caused suffering among the Spanish working classes, preparing the stage for broad political discontent. The rivalry between the Conservatives and the Liberals grew significantly. There were two general elections and 28 different governments between 1931 and 1936.

The Communist Party of Spain teamed up with other left-wing organisations to form the Popular Front, which won the February 1936 election. The Falangists, or Spanish fascists, confronted the Popular Front, resulting in open violence. The Falangists plotted a coup d’etat involving two Spanish generals; however, the government was alerted to the scheme and swiftly disbanded or prematurely retired any officer whose loyalty was questioned. Other officers were stationed on islands off the coast of Spain. General Francisco Franco Bahamonde, who was exiled to command the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa, was among the later.

On July 18, 1936, garrisons across Spain revolted, and several Spanish generals joined the revolutionaries, giving the insurgents control of parts of northern Spain. The small Spanish air force (SAF) began hostilities with a mix of foreign-built and Spanish-built foreign designs, most of which were obsolete. The insurgents had only those planes that they could seize from government sites or hijacked from foreign planes in passage to Spain. The Breguet XIX, Vickers Vildebeest, Hawker Fury, Bristol Bulldog, Czech Aero 101, Polish P.W.S. 10, Dutch Koolhoven FK.51 and Fokker F. VII, and de Havilland Dragon Rapide were among the Spanish air force’s aircraft, none of which would have been very helpful in a modern fight.

As a result, Madrid’s Popular Front administration requested assistance from France and the Soviet Union. (The rebels were referred to as insurgents, Fascists, and Nationalists, while the Popular Front administration was referred to as Loyalists, Communists, and Republicans.) Nationalists and Loyalists were the most prevalent terms used to describe the combatants.) On July 20, 1936, Prime Minister Léon Blum of the French Popular Front promised help and sold to Spain Dewoitine D.372 fighters, Bloch MB.210 bombers, and Potez 54 bombers. Four days later, Italy promised the insurgents troops and weapons aid.

Meanwhile, on July 19, General Franco went to Tetuan, Spain, to take command of the Foreign Legion and Moorish forces. Franco, however, needed a way to get his 25,000-man army across the Straits of Gibraltar to Spain, so he asked Germany for transport planes.

Adolf Hitler chose to aid General Franco in their mutual fight against communism while also putting his own military forces to the test. The desire to trade for Spain’s raw materials, as well as improving Germany’s foreign exchange condition, were among the Nazi leader’s motivations.

Despite the fact that Franco had requested ten freight planes, Germany offered twice as many Junkers Ju-52/3m Lufthansa passenger planes. Nine were flown from Dessau, Germany, to Tetuan, while the other 11 were loaded into crates and sent to the Hamburg ports. Six Heinkel He-51 biplane fighters were also disassembled and crated, as the Junkers would require fighter escorts due to their slow and unarmed nature. The 17 planes, along with spare parts, ammunition, and anti-aircraft weapons, were loaded onto the 22,000-ton Woerman Line steamer Usaramo.

A total of 86 German military troops, including Ju-52 aircrews, radio technicians, medical workers, air and ground maintenance people, and six fighter pilots, departed for Usaramo. Because concealment was paramount, the entire group pretended to be vacationing engineers, salespeople, painters, and photographers on a leisure cruise organized by the Nazi Strength Through Joy organization and supported by the ‘Union Travel Agency.’ The German volunteers were allowed to receive letters addressed to them from their families written to the fictional ‘Max Winkler, Berlin S.W. 68.’ The drill was codenamed ‘Magic Fire,’ a nod to Wagner’s Ring operas.

Oberleutnant Herwig Knüppel, Leutnant Ottheinrich Freiherr von Houwald, Leutnant Ekkehard Hefter, Oberleutnant Johannes Trautloft, Leutnant Alfons Klein, and Oberleutnant Krafft Eberhardt were among the covert volunteer fighter pilots. When the Germans weren’t utilizing their Heinkels, Eberhardt was in charge of the flight, while von Houwald was in charge of teaching Nationalist air force pilots.

Usaramo sailed from Hamburg on August 1, 1936, and arrived in Cadiz, Spain, five days later. German mechanics assisted by Spanish mechanics and Junkers assembly foreman ‘Nurmi’ Winckler, who had offered his assistance, constructed the six fighter pilots’ Heinkel biplanes at Seville’s Tablada airfield. On August 12, the Germans triumphantly flew their Heinkels over Seville.

Because of their covert purpose, German fighter pilots were prohibited from flying operational sorties except to escort cargo aircraft, Eberhardt was forced to hand over the six Heinkel biplanes to Spanish pilots. However, the inexperienced Spanish pilots crashed three of the six Heinkel jets, forcing German commanders in Spain to ask Franco and Berlin to reverse their decision. The authorities eventually yielded and allowed the German pilots to perform operational missions.

With only three planes to fly and six eager fighter pilots, a rotation system had to be devised. The three senior officers, Eberhardt, Knüppel, and Trautloft, flew the majority of the missions. Because the pilots fought in the mountain passes at the time, the three was quickly dubbed “the Hunters of Guardaramma,” after the Sierra de Guardaramma, a mountain range separating Madrid and Segovia.

Meanwhile, nine Lufthansa Junkers cargo planes landed in Tetuan, cramming up to 40 Moroccan Legionnaires into planes built to carry only 17 people. At the time, the Junkers Ju-52 transports flew five times a day to Seville, carrying Franco the nucleus of his army.

Two multinational squadrons had been prepared to fight for the Spanish Loyalist government by the time the Germans were ready for war. Three Russians, four Englishmen, and one Italian made up Captain Martn Antonio Luna’s International Squadron, while the International Brigade’s air squadron contained 15 Frenchmen, as well as Belgians, Czechs, Italians, Englishmen, and Americans.

German Condor Legion’s Tactical Air Power Alfons Klein, Ekkehard Hefter, Johannes Trautloft, Herwig Knüppel, Krafft Eberhardt, and Ottheinrich Freiherr von Houwald, from left, relax in front of a He-51. (From the collection of A.E. “Ed” Ferko)

The German three-plane fighter air force first engaged the enemy on August 25, 1936, when ‘Hannes’ Trautloft started the scoring by shooting down a Breguet XIX two-seater bomber/tactical reconnaissance aircraft designed in France and constructed in Spain. During the same fight, Eberhardt snatched a second Breguet. Knüppel and Eberhardt each shot down a Breguet the next day, and on August 27, Knüppel shot down a Nieuport fighter. Eberhardt destroyed a French-built Potez aircraft two days later.

The German pilots received both good and terrible news on August 30, 1936. A Potez 54 was destroyed by Knüppel, Eberhardt, and Trautloft. Machine gun shots damaged the right wing of Trautloft’s Heinkel, putting the biplane into a spiral dive as he fired at his target and scored. The Heinkel pilot dived out of the cockpit and released his parachute at about 8,000 feet after his controls were shot away. The Republican fighter who had shot out his controls came back to finish the job and opened fire on the dangling German, but Eberhardt and Knüppel scared him away. Hannes Trautloft had the dubious distinction of being the first German fighter pilot to shoot down an enemy jet over Spain, but he also had the dubious distinction of being the first to be shot down. On September 1, he equalized the score by shooting down a Nieuport fighter.

On September 10, Soviet spies and technicians set up shop in secret on the Loyalist airfields of Los Alcazares and Carmoli to receive Soviet planes and bombers. By September 28, 1936, Knüppel had six victories, Eberhardt had five, Trautloft had three, von Houwald had three, Hefter had one, and Klein had one.

Hefter was flying with a low-flying Heinkel squad over the Basque town of Vitoria on the 28th when his Heinkel lost height due to engine issues. Hefter became the first Heinkel squadron casualty when one of his wings collided with Vitoria’s town hall tower, bringing the plane plummeting to the street. Only two Heinkel planes remained for the five remaining pilots. Eberhardt and Trautloft both scored one Potez bomber on September 30, giving them their sixth and fourth victory, respectively.

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By October, General Franco had taken Badajoz and been appointed Chief of State. The siege of Madrid was launched. Six new Heinkel He-51 planes and ten pilots with mechanics had landed in Spain at the same time. This little force was insufficient to fight the Soviet fleet, and the Germans and Italians’ rule of Spanish skies was about to come to an end.

On October 19, Leutnant Oskar Henrici shot down a Nieuport 46, a Breguet XIX, and a Fokker transport for the incoming German arrivals. On that day, Hennig Strumpell and von Houwald each scored a Nieuport 46.

When it became clear that Franco lacked sufficient trained men and weapons, German intelligence head Admiral Wilhelm Canaris traveled to Spain on October 30 to propose more help, with the stipulation that German battalions be led by German commanders. He further stated that all German pilots, anti-aircraft forces, and air communications units in Spain must be incorporated into a German air force corps. Franco’s job was to keep the airfields safe. Ground and air operations must be closely coordinated, and when necessary, crack German ground forces with armor will be sent. The Luftwaffe was to be in charge of all operations. Franco agreed to those requirements, and the Condor Legion was formed and organized on November 7, 1936, under the covert name ‘Winter Exercise Hansa.’ Because of concerns about German participation and Franco’s growing strength, the Loyalist administration moved from Madrid to Valencia on the same day.

The legion’s commander was Generalleutnant Hugo Sperrle, with Oberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen as his chief of staff. Wolfram was Manfred von Richthofen’s cousin, the legendary World War I “Red Baron.” On November 15, 1936, Sperrle arrived in Spain and led three squadrons of Ju-52 bomber conversions (36 planes) in a huge strike against Loyalist ships and facilities in Cartagena. He advocated blowing cities to oblivion before sending in his troops, a practice Franco despised.

The Condor Legion was, in essence, a fully equipped and coordinated task force. Personnel for the Legion were drawn from the army, navy, and Luftwaffe. Officers of the ground and air forces were given Spanish-style olive-green uniforms, but naval officers kept their dark blue German uniforms. German naval forces included bomb- and torpedo-armed Heinkel He-59 twin-float, twin-engine biplanes to seek for and attack any Soviet freighters coming for Spanish Mediterranean ports.

German Condor Legion’s Tactical Air Power Gotthard Handrick (5 victories), Peter Boddem (10), Günther Lützow (5), Joachim Schlichting (5), Walter Ehle, Harro Harder (11), Erich Woitke (4), and Rolf Pingel, Condor Legion pilots, from left (6). (Photo courtesy of Walter A. Musciano)

Pilots from Germany were no longer volunteers. Only the most promising Luftwaffe leaders and crews were sent to Spain, where they stayed for three to seven months in order for as many soldiers as possible to get crucial combat experience. Veterans invariably became combat leaders and teachers at training facilities when they returned home. When 6,000 German troops disembarked in Cadiz on November 6 and 7, the world learned of Germany’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War for the first time. In mid-November, Ju-52 bombers were attacking Madrid when stubby small monoplane fighters swooped in and knocked down one of the Junkers before it could turn and flee. The first appearance of the Soviet Polikarpov (TsKB-12 bis) I-16, the world’s first low-wing monoplane fighter with retractable landing gear, nicknamed Mosca (‘Fly’) by Spanish pilots and Rata (‘Rat’) by Nationalist opponents. The Soviet Tupolev ANT-40 (SB-2) Katiuska twin-engine bomber made its debut around the same period.

On November 13, 1936, Heinkel and Soviet fighters collided as Eberhardt led nine planes to escort five Ju-52s and three Heinkel He-46 observation planes. The Germans were attacked by sixteen Chatos and eight Moscas. Unteroffizier Ernst Mratzek shot down an I-16 monoplane as the Soviet planes flew over, while Henrici destroyed another. Each of the I-15 biplanes was shot down by Knüppel, Strumpell, Leutnant Dietrich von Bothmer, and Unteroffizier Erwin Sawallisch. Eberhardt destroyed another I-15 before crashing into the collapsing enemy plane. The Soviet pilot used his parachute, but Eberhardt, who had won seven battles, died in the crash. Henrici, who was hit in the lung by a bullet but landed in friendly territory, climbed out of his He-51 before collapsing and dying. Four enemy planes had been shot down by him.

The Luftwaffe sent more He-51s to Spain, erroneously believing that the 4-year-old Heinkel design could defeat any Soviet aircraft. On November 18, 1936, another batch of 60 crated biplane fighters arrived in Seville for assembly at Tablada. Berlin appears to have overlooked the reality that recent wins were achieved because to the competence of German pilots, not the quality of the old planes they were flying.

At the time, German Staffeln (squadrons) were made up of 12 planes divided into four flights (Kette) of three planes each. In 1936, the German Staffel was insignificant in comparison to the United States Army Air Corps squadron of 24 planes and the United States Navy squadron of 18 planes. With the new Heinkels, three Staffeln were grouped into a Gruppe. The ‘elite’ fighter pilots who had been flying in Spain before the Condor Legion was formed formed a fourth Staffel. Staffelkapitän of Staffel 4 (4.J/88) was Hauptmann Knüppel.

On November 23, 1936, reconnaissance observer/gunner Oberleutnant Wilhelm Balthasar returned with crucial information that enabled the Germans to launch a two-day bombing raid on the seaport city of Cartagena. On January 20, 1937, the daring Balthasar shot down a Chato fighter from a Heinkel He-70 Rayo (‘lightning bolt’) reconnaissance-bomber. He had to make an emergency landing with his damaged jet at Almorox airstrip on March 16. 3.J/88 fighters were forming up to attack a Loyalist armored train as the He-70 landed. Balthasar fooled the field commanding officer into believing he was a veteran fighter pilot when he discovered an experimental Heinkel He-112 fighter on the field, and was granted permission to fly the monoplane (he had actually been rejected for flight training because of poor eyesight and had taken private flying lessons). Balthasar flew off with the fighters and blew up the train’s ammo car with the Heinkel’s 20mm gun. He also destroyed a Loyalist tank on his way back to the airstrip.

Balthasar was punished by the commanding commander upon landing. When the high brass found out about his misadventure, he was given command of a detachment of three Heinkel He-45 Pavo biplanes and one He-112 fighter to undertake tactical reconnaissance, low-level strikes, and artillery spotting.

The He-51 pilots were pitted against an air force that was numerically and technologically superior. In fact, this force was so dominant in the Madrid area that Condor Legion daylight bomber escort missions were limited to dawn and dusk flights. Despite these challenges, Trautloft and von Bothmer shot down a Rata with their Heinkel biplanes on December 8, 1936.

On December 9, 1936, Messerschmitt Bf-109V and He-112 fighters, as well as Junkers Ju-87 and Henschel Hs-123 dive bombers, were delivered to Test Staffel VJ/88 at Tablada for examination. Trautloft, who was assigned to a preproduction Messerschmitt Bf-109V, tested the plane in combat and examined its performance and design, compiling reams of papers that included suggestions on how to improve the design.

Trautloft, von Houwald, Sawallisch, and Klein were the first German legionnaires to return to Germany when their tour of service ended on March 2, 1937. Trautloft was part of the victorious three-plane squad in the formation speed dash around the Alps at the Zurich International Flying Meet four months later, operating a Bf-109.

German Condor Legion’s Tactical Air Power Germany’s reaction to the Republicans’ Polikarpov I-16s was the Messerschmitt Bf-109B. Walter Oesau flew this Bf-109B-2 in August 1937, which replaced the B-1’s airscrew with a metal controllable-pitch propeller. (Photo courtesy of Walter A. Musciano)

When Luftwaffe officials saw the amount and apparent quality of Soviet aircraft, they resolved to furnish the Condor Legion with the new Bf-109, even if it meant denying the plane to the Jagdwaffe (Luftwaffe fighter groups). On March 19, 1937, 12 of the 30 Bf-109B-1 planes manufactured were delivered to No. 2 Staffel of J/88. Harro Harder was named No. 1, Günther Lützow was named No. 2, and Douglas Pitcairn was named No. 3. Numbers 1 and 3 Staffeln kept their Heinkel biplanes pending the arrival of more Messerschmitts. In April 1937, Number 4 Staffel was disbanded.

The ground support mission of the Heinkel pilots was not only perilous, but also unrewarding, because a job well done was not rewarded in the same way that a fighter pilot’s triumph was. In the face of hundreds of infantry weapons shooting at the invading planes and pilots, low-flying formation attacks prevented any evasive maneuvers. The Heinkels were dubbed Calendas, or chains, by the Nationalist troops to characterize their attack method, and the pilots were dubbed Trabajadores, or workers, because they were always on the job, assisting the ground troops. On April 1, 1937, Leutnant Wilhelm Blankennagel was hit in the head by an infantry rifle bullet while flying, demonstrating the perilous conditions in which Trabajadores flew. The pilot was still belted in his seat when his Heinkel crashed into a ridge.

The northern Basque front was on the verge of collapsing on April 26, and the Condor Legion was instructed to destroy a bridge and railway station in Guernica to prevent Loyalist reinforcements from arriving. The train station was attacked by He-111 and Dornier Do-17 bombers. Following that strike, Ju-52 bombers were forced to drop their bombs blind due to high smoke and dust. Other indiscriminate bombings followed, killing between 300 and 1,600 civilians and inspiring Pablo Picasso’s renowned artwork of the sad incident.

J/88 had a bad day on April 30, 1937, when seven fighter pilots were killed all at once. A Ju-52 transport carrying Hans Giesecke, Kurt von Gilsa, Manfred Fuhrke, Gustav Gaus, Herbert Demant, Ernst Mratzek, and Ernst Assenkopp was shot down by Loyalist fighters on its way to Rome.

Franco sought Sperrle’s recall shortly after the bombing of Guernica and replaced him with Generalmajor Hellmuth Volkmann. Oberleutnant Adolf Galland arrived in Spain on May 7, 1937, and was elevated to the next higher grade of Hauptmann, as was customary for incoming Condor Legion commanders. Galland was assigned to manage the maintenance and repair section for J/88 due to his knowledge with glider manufacturing as a member of German gliding organizations. His responsibilities included overseeing the assembly and testing of freshly arrived planes, as well as the repair and testing of damaged planes, significant overhauls, and vehicle maintenance. Before returning to administrative responsibilities, he flew a He-51 for a short time.

J/88 was reorganized after receiving Bf-109B-2 planes from Number 1 Staffel in late August 1937. When Galland’s request for flying service was accepted, he became Kapitän of No. 3 Staffel, and Major Gotthard Handrick became the group leader. Pitcairn was moved to the recreated No. 4 Staffel as Kapitän. Nos. 1 and 2 Staffeln flew Messerschmitts, while Nos. 3 and 4 Staffeln flew Heinkel biplanes as ground assault units.

Galland believed that the He-51s’ modest 22-pound bombs lacked the destructive power necessary to destroy anti-aircraft and machine gun sites. They devised the ‘Devil’s Egg,’ filling the planes’ long-range 45-gallon drop tanks with a 25-gallon mixture of gasoline and spent motor oil, after consulting with his technicians. Each side of the tank has a 22-pound bomb attached to it. The tank burst open and the explosives detonated when the new weapon hit the ground, burning the combination into a sticky, blazing mess — the predecessor to napalm.

Galland is also recognized with developing a specially modified train that could transport his entire squadron to areas where it was needed. By that time, Condor Legion units had been called upon so frequently to save faltering operations that they had earned the nickname “Franco’s Firemen.” Packing, transporting, and unpacking squadron personnel took time, so Franco had the Nationalist army provide 12 railroad passenger coaches that were converted into sleeping quarters, dining rooms, kitchens, workshops, briefing rooms, offices, toilets, and a bathroom in a matter of days at Galland’s request. After that, the Staffel never traveled without its train. During World War II, this system of Luftwaffe trains would be deployed as well. Galland, like Trautloft, created scores of studies on the development and theory of tactical air power, which Luftwaffe authorities in Berlin eagerly perused.

Volkmann was replaced by Richthofen on April 1, 1938, due to Volkmann’s promotion to General der Flieger and commandant of the German Air War Academy. Galland was ordered to return to Germany after completing 280 operational flights when his replacement, Oberleutnant Werner Mölders, arrived in Spain in early April 1938.

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German Condor Legion’s Tactical Air Power Werner Mölders, pictured with his Bf-109D-2, pioneered the “finger-four formation” over Spain and went on to become the Condor Legion’s most successful pilot, with 14 wins. (Photo courtesy of Walter A. Musciano)

Each Schwarm plane flew at a different altitude, and when observed from above, each plane flew where the four fingertips of a horizontally extended hand, palm down, fingers straight and slightly spread, would be if viewed from above. Large areas of sky were no longer cut off from view by friendly aircraft in this loose and flexible configuration, as they were in densely packed formations. It was no longer required to fly close to the leader to observe his hand signals now that contemporary fighter planes were equipped with radios. Although the Finnish air force adopted this technique in 1935, Mölders was the first to develop and test it in combat. Since then, every air force has followed this system. The ‘finger-four formation’ is used by the Royal Air Force, whereas the ‘double-attack system’ is used by the United States Air Force.

Even experienced pilots found it difficult to transition from the tight Vee Kette to the open Rotte, especially when all members of the Schwarm made a fast turn at the same time. Because of the large distance between the extreme right and left aircraft, the plane closest to the center of the arc would have to slow down, while the plane furthest from the center of the arc would have to accelerate. To avoid this, the wingman, who flew somewhat higher than the leader, was instructed to sideslip over the leader, bringing both members of the Rotte scribe into the same arc.

On April 4, 1938, Nos. 1 and 2 Staffeln were undertaking a reassignment trip from Zaragoza to Huesca, and an example of the sideslip crossover maneuver danger occurred. When Leutnant Fritz Awe ordered a 90-degree left turn, he was leading a No. 1 Staffel Schwarm. Borchers’ propeller smashed through Awe’s cockpit, tearing the fuselage in half, as his wingman, Unteroffizier Adolf Borchers, overlapped Awe’s Messerschmitt. The cockpit, forward fuselage, engine, and wing fluttered down like a falling leaf as the tail whirled to ground. When rescuers arrived at Awe’s wreckage, they discovered the deceased pilot decapitated in the cockpit. Borchers’ Messerschmitt landed on its side, although he sustained only minor injuries.

Franco began his 1938 onslaught against Barcelona in Catalonia by capturing Teruel and Vinaroz. On May 24, 1938, Mölders took command of 3.J/88, just as the first of five new four-gun, radio-equipped Bf-109C-1 planes arrived for J/88 over the summer. Numbers 1, 2, and 3 Staffeln now flew Messerschmitts, while No. 4 Staffel, led by Hauptmann Eberhardt d’ Elsa, flew all He-51s. Each squadron’s tally of wins skyrocketed as soon as they obtained their Messerschmitts.

On July 15, 1938, Mölders scored his first victory in a new four-gun Bf-109C-1 when he shot down a Chato, a move he duplicated two days later. There were already at least seven Condor Legion fighter pilots with five or more victories at the time Mölders began scoring, which would have qualified them as aces in most air forces across the world except Germany’s. The term “ace” was not used by the Luftwaffe, but any pilot who frequently scored victories was given the designation “Experte.” Hauptmann Harder had 11 victories; Oberleutnant Balthasar had six, including the destruction of four Soviet SB-2 twin engine bombers in six minutes on February 7, 1938 (he had joined 1.J/88 in January 1938 and moved to 2.J/88 the following month); Leutnant Reinhard Seiler had nine; Unteroffizier Kurt Rochel had six; Leutnant Reinhard Seiler had six; Leutnant Reinhard Seiler had six Mölders quickly caught up and overtook them all.

Galland left to Germany in 1938 without ever having flown a Messerschmitt in combat, but scoring 103 wins in them during WWII. When Mölders’ term of duty came to an end on November 3, 1938, he gained his 14th and final victory. He returned to Germany as the Condor Legion’s Chief Experte. Hauptmann Wolfgang Schellmann had 12 wins by the end of the war in Spain, followed by Leutnant Peter Boddem with ten, Oberleutnant Walter Oesau with nine, Hauptmann Knüppel with eight, Oberleutnant Balthasar with seven, Oberleutnant Rolf Pingel with six, and Hauptmann Lützow with five.

White flags were spotted flying above Madrid on March 27, 1939, and the city surrendered the next day. On April 1, 1939, General Franco declared the Spanish Civil War to be over.

In Spain, German fighter pilots shot down a total of 409 enemy planes. In Spain, the German fighter Staffeln lost 19 pilots, including those shot down by anti-aircraft fire. Five people died in plane crashes, three people died in mid-air incidents, and five people died from illnesses unrelated to military service.

German Condor Legion’s Tactical Air Power On June 9, 1939, Generalfeldmarschall Hermann Göring, at left, evaluates Condor Legion men returning to Germany with Generalmajor Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen to his left. (Bettmann/Corbis)

Brotherly war can be cruel and unforgiving. Before the Nationalist force advanced, the Loyalist combatants and Catalan population fled in terror. France opened its borders and welcomed around 500,000 Spaniards, establishing camps to house the immigrants. When the Condor Legion returned to Germany, ecstatic crowds greeted it, while many similarly heroic Loyalist pilots hobbled or snuck across the French border.

The Condor Legion and the Italians in Spain handed over their weaponry, including tanks and planes, to the Spanish government. By November 9, 1939, the Ejercito del Aire (Spain’s independent air force) had been established.

Military historians generally believe that Germany learned a great deal during the Spanish Civil War that aided the Nazis during World War II. However, it should be noted that the German air force’s tactical application of aircraft in support of ground troops influenced Luftwaffe leaders to the point where, during WWII, they only thought in terms of tactical air power and ignored the development of a balanced air force, dismissing the idea of four-engine strategic bombers.

The Luftwaffe’s bomber blunder was an oversight that would prove costly in the end.


Walter A. Musciano, of Lodi, New Jersey, has been a regular contributor to Aviation History for many years. Karl Ries and Hans Ring’s The Legion Condor: A History of the Luftwaffe in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 is recommended reading.

The original version of this article appeared in the September 2004 issue of Aviation History. Pick up a copy of the magazine or subscribe today for more fantastic content!

The Condor Legion was a Luftwaffe unit formed in 1934 as a support unit for the Condor Legion, a special ground-based espionage unit, which was the aerial espionage arm of the German General Staff. The Condor Legion was responsible for planning and executing a number of actions against the Government of Spain during the Spanish Civil War, including the bombing of Guernica in 1937 and the delivery of aid to the Loyalist forces during the Siege of Madrid. On the eve of World War II, the Condor Legion was renamed the “Luftwaffe’s” Condor Legion and it was moved to Germany, where it became the core of the German Air Force’s (Luftwaffe) strategic bombing force.. Read more about condor legion neckpiece and let us know what you think.

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