The Legionary Air Force (Italian: Aviazione Legionaria, Spanish: Aviación Legionaria) was an expeditionary corps from the Italian Royal Air Force. It was set up in 1936 and sent to provide logistical and tactical support to the rebel faction after the pro-Fascist military coup which marked the onset of the Spanish Civil War. This air force would fight the conflict against the Spanish Republic alongside its Nazi German equivalent, the Condor Legion, and the Italian ground troops of the Corpo Truppe Volontarie. They served from August 1936 to the end of the conflict in March 1939. Their main base of operations was Majorca in the Balearic Islands.
At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936, the rebel armies in Spanish North Africa led by Francisco Franco had about 30,000 troops and Moroccan nationals under his command, along with some artillery units. In order to transfer his troops and material to mainland Spain, on 24 July 1936, Franco turned to the Italian consul in Tangiers and then directly to major Luccardi, the military attache in the Italian consulate. Through them Franco tried to convince Benito Mussolini to send twelve transport aircraft, twelve reconnaissance planes, ten fighter aircraft, 3000 aerial bombs, antiaircraft machine guns and at least forty five transport ships. At first Mussolini was reluctant to send them, despite his sympathy for Franco, but his son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano put pressure on him and he changed his mind on July 25. Ciano had in the meantime spoken with two representatives of the Spanish monarchy about thirty fighter planes and other equipment sent by the French government that would arrive on August 2.
On July 27 Mussolini ordered the under-secretary for the Regia Aeronautica, general Giuseppe Valle, to send 12 three-engined Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 bombers with crews and the relevant specialists. These would form the first unit, initially known at first as Aviación del Tercio and set out at dawn on 30 July from Cagliari-Elmas on Sardinia, where they had picked up three officials from the Scuola di Navigazione di Altura at Orbetello, the 'gerarca' Ettore Muti and the tenente-colonnello Ruggero Bonomi. The aircraft crews and the specialists were all volunteers from 7th, 10th and 13th Stormo and were provided with civilian clothes and fake documents. All the Italian symbols on the planes had been blotted out to prevent an international incident with pro-Republican European governments. Fake documents stated that the planes were being sold to the Spanish journalist Luis Bolin.
Not all of the Fascist Italian planes sent to the rebel faction reached Morocco - the plane commanded by Angelini crashed in the Mediterranean, that under Mattalia crashed near Saïda (in a French-controlled part of Morocco), and that commanded by Lo Forte had to make an emergency landing near Berkane (also in French Morocco) and was seized by the local authorities. The nine survivors of the Moroccan crashes were provided with nationalist papers and transferred to the airport at Tetuan, from which they helped over the following days to escort the transport ships Araujo, Ciudad de Alicante and Ciudad de Ceuta, which together carried 4,000 men, 4 artillery batteries, 2 million cartridges and 12 tons of other munitions to mainland Spain.
Encouraged by this first operation's success, Mussolini began to send a more steady stream of munitions, personnel and supplies under the name of Aviación Legionaria, Aviazione Legionaria.
Besides military targets, the Aviazione Legionaria carried out a great number strategic bombings of cities in the Spanish Republican rear-guard intended to terrify the civilian population into surrender. The most significant are the 1936 Bombing of Madrid ordered by General Franco, in which the city's residential areas were subject to aerial bombardments —with the exception of the upper class Salamanca district which was assumed to contain many Nationalist supporters. Three Italian bombers attacked the Renteria bridge in the outskirts of Guernika some before the Bombing of Guernica done on April 26 1937 by the Condor Legion, followed by bombed Almeria.
But it would be in 1938 when the Italian planes did most of their large-scale bombing operations over the cities of Barcelona, Alicante, Granollers and Valencia, as well as the Bombing of Xàtiva in 1939, with a total of 728 raids over Spanish Mediterranean cities launching a total of 16.558 bombs mostly over civilian targets and inflicting many, mostly civilian, casualties.
On 12 May 1939 the last Italian aircrew embarked for Italy on the ship Duilio at Cadiz. By the end of the conflict the Aviazione Legionaria had had a total of 135,265 hours' flying time on 5,318 operations, dropping 11,524 tons of bombs and destroying 943 enemy air units and 224 ships. 171 Italian personnel had been killed and 192 wounded, with 74 fighters, 8 bombers, 2 ground-attack planes and 2 reconnaissance aircraft shot down or destroyed. The ratio of results to men and machines lost was positive, but also confirmed the Regia Aeronautica's commanders in their mistaken belief that biplanes and triplanes were still valid in modern combat. In fact the age of air warfare dominated by these aircraft was waning and it was becoming evident that radio needed to be mounted on all aircraft and that bomb-aiming now had to be done with special instruments rather than by sight These errors of judgement would prove decisive when Italy entered the Second World War in 1940.
12 Fiat CR.32 biplanes arrived in Melilla in transport ships on 14 August 1936 (405 would have been sent to Franco by the end of the operation) and by the end of August the "Cucaracha" squadron was formed at Caceres with aircraft of that type. Initial dispatches of aircraft were followed by more numerous ones - in March 1939 eleven of the new monoplane Fiat G.50 fighter were sent, to be based at the base at Ascalona, though in the end they never saw action.
Various bombers were sent 55 three-engined S.M.81 "Pipistrello", 99 of the three-engined Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 "Sparviero" and 16 of the Fiat BR.20 "Cicogna". The units were made part of the 21st Stormo da Bombardamento Pesante and from the 251st and 252nd Squadriglia Pipistrelli delle Baleari. The "Cicogne" went to 230th Squadriglia da bombardamento veloce in summer 1937, before being moved to the 231st in 1938.
Altogether a total of 764 airplanes were sent:Fiat CR.32, fighter (376 aircraft)
Fiat G.50, fighter (12)
Fiat BR.20, bomber (13)
Savoia-Marchetti SM.79, bomber/torpedo-bomber (100)
Savoia-Marchetti SM.81, bomber (84)
Breda Ba.65, ground attack aircraft (23)
Seaplanes, several types (20) - Three SM.55 bomber and three M.41 fighter in August 1936, ten single-engined CANT Z.501 seaplanes were sent to assist Franco's naval units in April 1937, along with four heavy three-engined CANT Z.506 seaplanes in July 1938.
Transport aircraft, several types (53 approximately)
Troop carrier aircraft, several types, (10 approximately)
Training and reconnaissance aircraft - 25 of the single-engined biplane IMAM Ro.41, 36 IMAM Ro.37s, 16 Caproni Ca.310s, 10 Caproni A.P.1s, 6 Breda Ba.28s and a few Fiat C.R.20B
The 276 of these aircraft which survived at the end of the war were all transferred to the newly established Spanish Nationalist Air Force.
The unit's recognition symbols were roundels placed on both sides of the wings and on the tail-rudder. The wing symbol was a completely black circle, later personalised with white symbols ranging from a simple cross to designs referring to the commanders of the Condor Legion and the Aviación Nacional. The tail symbol was a simple black cross on a white field, which remained the fin flash of the later Ejército del Aire.
In addition to the aircraft, Italy provided a number of well-trained men, sending more than 6,000 in total (5,699 airmen and 312 civilians). These men replaced Spaniards who had been killed.
Source: Axishistory.com (12 July 2008)
In its two and a half years in Spain the legion had four commanders (final ranks noted):
- Generale di Brigata Aerea Ruggero Bonomi, until December 1936
- Generale di Divisione Aerea Vincenzo Velardi
- Generale di Squadra Aerea Mario Bernasconi
- Generale di Divisione Aerea Adriano Monti.