The Spanish Civil War, which began in July 1936, was the most significant of the conflicts that foreshadowed World War II.
The war forced the world to take sides. Russia contributed military assistance to the cause of the newly elected Republican government, while Germany and Italy backed the Fascist rebels, followers of Generalissimo Franco, who were known as Nationalists.
Many countries, including the United States, chose to stay neutral, believing that involvement would lead to a further war in Europe. In spite of this, many U.S. aircraft would make their way to Spain.
The aerial conflict would see more than 200 types of aircraft involved. Of these, there were 25 types of American aircraft involved, but not in large numbers, with only about 60 U.S. aircraft seeing use in Spain.
The American aircraft that were used by each side entered the war in one of three ways: The first were those that were in Spain prior to the war; those that were imported during the war; and those that were obtained by capture from the other side. The largest numbers would enter Spain by clandestine means during the war.
Prior to the start of the civil war, the most important of the U.S. aircraft in Spain were four Douglas DC-2 transports and a Ford 4-AT Tri-Motor in use by LAPE, the state airline, as well as 10 Vultee V-1As from American Airlines.
At the start of the war most of the transports would be obtained by the Republican forces, but the Nationalists would get control of one of the DC-2s.
The other U.S. aircraft present at the start of the war were some light aircraft, such as an American Eagle Eaglet, a Beech 17, a Stinson Reliant, a Fairchild KR-22 and a batch of Monocoupes.
There was one U.S. fighter present, a Boeing 281, the export version of the P-26 Peashooter. This lone Boeing fighter would suffer the indignation of almost shooting itself down — twice — due to a faulty machine gun mechanism.
The United States Neutrality Act hampered the sales of aircraft to Spain. Even though the 1935 act prohibited supplying either side in a conflict, it was for two countries at war — and not the case of Spain, which was a civil war. The U.S. government position was that supplying either side was contrary to the intent of the law. This attitude would be put to the test and force Congress to take a stand.
The U.S. decision to embargo goods to Spain came about by an incident called by Time magazine, “The Vimalert Affair.” Robert Cuse, the head of the Vimalert Co., a second-hand aircraft and arms dealer, realized that the Spanish crises was an opportunity to sell aircraft to the Republicans. He also realized that there was no law to prevent him from doing so. On Dec. 28, 1936, he obtained permission from the State Department to sell more than $2 million worth of airplanes, parts and engines to the Republicans.
Most important were the 18 planes that Vimalert had gathered and were crating for shipment at North Beach airport on Long Island, including such famed planes as Laura Ingall’s Lockheed Orion, Powell Crosley’s Northrop Delta, seven discarded American Airlines Vultees and, ironically, Harry Richman and Dick Merrill’s Vultee “Lady Peace.”
President Roosevelt and the State Department denounced Cuse and insisted that Congress take action.
Eight of the planes were loaded on the Spanish ship “Mar Cantabrico,” which departed New York Jan. 7, 1937, just in time to beat the embargo against Spain voted by Congress. However, the ship was intercepted by Franco’s forces in the Bay of Biscay and the aircraft passed into Nationalists hands.
The embargo forced the Spanish Republicans to look, for the most part, elsewhere in the world for American aircraft. They were able to obtain U.S. aircraft in Sweden, Switzerland, England, Mexico and Canada, including another Douglas DC-2, the one and only Douglas DC-1, Consolidated Fleetsters, a Lockheed Orion and Vega, and a General Aviation GA 43.
The largest batch of aircraft were 34 Canadian-built Grumman GE-23s, known in U.S. Navy service as the FF-1. Spanish agents who had seen the aircraft in Canada ordered 50. The decision by Canada to also place an embargo on shipments to Spain delayed the process. Using forged Turkish documents, the aircraft were again ordered and production proceeded.
Eventually 34 crated aircraft were shipped to Le Havre, France, and then trucked to Spain. One of these gained the distinction of claiming the only Grumman biplane victory by downing a German Heinkel reconnaissance aircraft.
Dennis Parks is Curator Emeritus of Seattle’s Museum of Flight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.