08 julio, 2016

The Last Flight of the Natachas

In war, improving weather is never a good omen for those awaiting an attack. On the morning of December 24th, 1938,  everyone at Rosanes, an airfield near La Garriga, was looking forward to the Christmas Eve party. Under the Republic, this holiday had been disguised as a “Winter Festival.” Unfortunately, Franco had launched the final offensive against Cataluña the previous day, and by mid-morning the activity on the airfield had become intense. The Natacha squadron had just received the order to bomb the enemy advance near Fonllogosa, on the Balaguer front.

The trucks were driving across the runway, starting the engines of the planes. The gunners were testing their weapons by firing short bursts. The pilots could not do the same. Due to the matériel shortages, the forward-facing machine guns had been dismounted in order to equip Polikarpov I-15 “Chatos,” which left the Natachas unarmed should the gunner be overcome by enemy bullets. At two o’clock, the first airplane took off, piloted by squadron leader Eustaquio Gutiérrez of Toledo. After a few minutes, the nine Natachas—grouped in an arrow of three patrols—left the sky of La Garriga. Half an hour later, they met up with their fighter escort, the two remaining squadrons of Polikarpov I-16 “Moscas.” The ten airplanes of 6th Squadron flew two hundred meters above the bombers, while the nine of 7th Squadron flew about halfway between 6th Squadron and the Natachas. The fighters had to zigzag to match speed with the slow bombers without stalling. At this point in the war, the Natachas were already obsolete in light of the technical advances of the latest Italian and German airplane models that were operated by the Nationalists.

After an hour and twenty minutes in the air, the Natachas arrived at their target and were received by dense antiaircraft fire. They dropped their bombs at an altitude of five hundred meters and began the flight home. The intensity of the ground fire forced them to disperse too much, although they did not break formation entirely. The shooting stopped suddenly. The escorting Moscas were already far away when a storm of Nationalist Fiats bounced the Natachas. The enemy fighters, which were returning from a mission to protect a bombing raid, had noticed the situation. The Fiats mercilessly attacked the Natachas, whose only defense was a dizzying dive. Without fighter cover or rapid-fire machine guns, they were easy prey.

The first to fall was the squadron leader, Eustaquio Gutiérrez, and his gunner, Teodoro Garrote. They were wounded by bullets, forced to parachute above enemy territory, and captured. Gutiérrez’ right wingman was also hit by Fiats. The pilot, José Gómez, received a shrapnel wound to the head. Almost blinded by blood, he was also in extreme pain from an explosive bullet in his ankle. Meanwhile, the gunner, Juan José Ruiz, who had received six shots in one leg, continued to fire until he fainted. When they reached Republican lines, the fuel was running along the floor of the cabin, threatening fire. They force-landed on a mountain two kilometers to the north of the Osó of Balaguer, a shrubland near a ravine. They were picked up by a small group of Republican soldiers that saw the accident and carried them by mule to a field hospital. The doctors, believing the pilot dead, concentrated on his comrade until a seven-year-old boy touches the body and realized that Gómez was still alive. Later, he would regain consciousness, but he would remain deaf because they had to remove both ears. The gunner’s leg had to be amputated.

The third airplane of the first patrol, Guiterrez’s left wingman, was hit. The gunner, Diego López, stopped shooting because of his wounds. Defenseless, the pilot Antonio Nicolás managed to reach Republican territory, but he died in a crash while trying to force-land. His gunner would follow him to the grave a day later.

The Natacha that led the second patrol, piloted by Farncisco Palma, dove wildly, hounded by its pursuers, and managed to land near Tárrega. However, the plane was irreparably damaged and both pilot and gunner injured. To their right, Antonio Arijita’s airplane managed to escape alone without anyone having seen it, but it did not return to Rosanes. Arijita and his gunner, Martiniano Lumbreras, were both presumed dead. Their comrades did not know that he had managed to land in Vic without being hit by a single bullet.

The bomber to the left, in which Isidoro Nájera and Dionisio Onoro were flying, managed to escape with one from the third patrol, that of Luis Villalvilla and Antonio Lizaga. Aided by the four fighters that follow them, both Natachas defended themselves, even managing to shoot down one of the Fiats. These two Natachas were the only ones that managed to return to La Garriga.

The leader of the last flight, Hector de Diego, dove at over 500 kilometers per hour while he listened to the insults of his gunner mixed with the staccato gunfire. After leaving the fighters behind, he tried to force-land immediately so that his gunner, who had been wounded in the leg, could receive medical attention. De Diego’s Natacha nosed up on a field, where the airplane turned over abruptly. After being attended to in Cervera, they managed to return to Barcelona in a car. After spending a few hours in the Platón Clinic where his companion’s leg wounds were treated, de Diego decided to leave him and return to La Garriga.

The last Natacha, that of Ramón D’Ocón, had worse luck. Pursued by some of the most experienced enemy pilots, among them the Nationalist ace García Morato, this last airplane was the one that received the most hits. The gunner, Enrique Sanz, never stopped firing his rapid-fire Shkás. That day, it had been his turn to relieve a comrade as the photographer in the last plane. After the Natacha was overtaken, the pilot parachuted. Despairing, he watched the airplane, with Enrique Sanz still inside, crash into the swamp of Camarassa. After hiding all night in no-man’s land cursing the death of his friend, D’Ocón managed to reach Republican lines.

When Hector de Diego arrived at La Garriga, at three on Christmas morning, the silence was sepulchral. The table had been set for the Christmas Eve dinner, but it was untouched, the emptiness lit by candlelight. The Natacha squadron of Rosanes was already history.

Members of 2nd Squadron in front of the Chalet. 
Photograph taken by Héctor de Diego, one of the pilots.

Note: Following an annual tradition, on Sant Jordi’s Day (April 23rd), my wife Laura gave me a book: Aviació i guerra a La Garriga. 1933-1946 by David Gesalí and David Iñiguez. Although the narrative sometimes gets lost in local, somewhat provincial, details, the book is magnificently documented and illustrated. This article draws some crucial details from that work.

Translation by Katya Anderson of orgininal spanish text: http://bit.ly/29mVUei

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