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Fighter v. Fighter
A suburb of Madrid, Noon, November 19, 1936
Oberst Werner Reinecke, chief of staff of the Condor Legion, stood on a hill to the northwest of Madrid overlooking the scene.
The Falangist offensive, for which his force was providing air cover, had reached the University City suburb of the city before being thrown back, largely by the International Brigades. It was a sensitive point with Oberst Reinecke that one of those brigades contained the Thaelmann Battalion, made up of German communists. On the one hand, it pained him that there should exist such things as German communists, and, even more, that they should be here fighting on the wrong side. On the other hand, they represented the only German ground forces in the young war, as opposed to his own air component on the opposite side.
In his heart of hearts Reinecke wouldn't have been displeased to see the Thaelmann Battalion chew up its Spanish Nationalist opposition while his own force swept the skies of Republican aircraft. Indeed, something close to that had happened, with the result that there was now a stalemate.
Under these circumstances, the Condor Legion had opened an air offensive two nights previously against the city of Madrid. It was the first time that an air force had ever been launched against a major city, and there were a number of things to be learned. Would the fire fighting force be overwhelmed to the point where fires would become general, and make their way through the entire city? Would gas and water mains, and electrical lines, be broken and disrupted to the point where the city could no longer function? Would the civilian population have to be evacuated?
According to Reinecke's calculations, the exodus of eighty per cent of Madrid's population, in the transport that was likely to be available, would tie up all the roads leading from Madrid for three weeks. During that time it would be extremely difficult to supply the troops at the front. They might well be forced to retreat until they had got clear of the mass of their own refugees, and could thus be supplied again.
Oberst Reinecke was an avid reader of the works of the American General Mitchell, and he had his own theory as to what Mitchell really meant when he talked of striking direct at the enemy heartland. He had recently explained it all to his commandant, General Hugo Sperrle.
A modern city is a complex solution, built up over many years, to all the problems of maintaining a mass population.
"Bitte, Herr General, nachdenken Sie uber der Fall von Madrid."
A depopulation of Madrid would put masses of people in places where there would be no solutions to the problems of food supply, drinking water, sanitation, and shelter. Even if these people were ultimately and optimally distributed among the other cities of Republican Spain, the consumption of goods in these other cities would be substantially increased by the refugees. The delicate balance between production and consumption, which, among other things, makes military production and supply possible, would be fatally altered. Those cities to which people fled would be rendered almost as useless as the city, in this case Madrid, from which they had fled. This was a fact of economics. It also constituted the true meaning of Mitchell's thesis. Even in the unlikely event that the Republican armies in front of Madrid could be supplied, the country behind them would collapse.
The only way the Republicans could avoid this consequence of the depopulation of Madrid would be for them to shoot people who tried to flee the city. The communists might attempt that, but such a policy wouldn't be carried out consistently by the Republican government, particularly since it had itself already left Madrid.
The real question was this: Did that detachment of the Luftwaffe known as the Condor Legion have the power to depopulate Madrid?
The bombing campaign had begun the night of the 17th, so that Madrid had now been hit on two successive nights. A daylight raid was scheduled shortly, and then another at night. Oberst Reinecke could see great volumes of smoke rising, but he was concerned by the fact that the columns didn't seem to be growing or merging. Nor had aerial reconnaissance reported any considerable flow of refugees blocking the roads. It would take more raids to do the trick, and he waited anxiously for the squadrons of tri-motored Junkers to appear.
Within the city itself, Mr. Robert Conway stood in a small park which gave him a view of most of the sky. The daylight attacks on the city had been increasing, and Captain Whitby had decided on a trial of strength. Even now, Conway could see the whole force of two squadrons, minus one section left at home to patrol, approaching from the west. It was a gray day with low cloud cover, and the Mureaux fighters were clearly visible against the clouds as they flew just under them.
Oberst Reinecke would have envied Mr. Conway his access to the city, but might have chided him on his failure to make the pertinent observations. Mr. Conway, for example, couldn't have begun to estimate the proportion of dwellings rendered uninhabitable, even in the districts through which he had passed. Neither had he been attentive to water mains. While he had stepped over streams of water flowing from broken pipes in bombed buildings, he hadn't jotted down in his notebook the quite important fact that water wasn't gushing up from any broken mains. Although Conway had stopped to talk with a number of inhabitants, he hadn't asked them any of the questions which would have been on the tip of Reinecke's tongue. How much food did they have on hand? Were the markets still functioning in an orderly fashion, or had they degenerated into chaos? Perhaps most important, did water still come out of the taps?
Indeed, if Oberst Reinecke had known anything about his opposite number in the fighter forces opposing the Condor Legion, he might have been inclined to make a preliminary draft of a report announcing total victory, to be sent to Reichsmarschall Goring in the not very distant future.
Mr. Conway, in fact, kept no notebook at all. He wasn't familiar with the writings of General Mitchell. He had no precise idea what would happen to Republican Spain if Madrid were evacuated. He had only a vague feeling that the country would hang on somehow. He did know that the Condor Legion was now equipped partly with fighters designed by Willy Messerschmidt, which were much faster than the Mureaux of his own force. Oberst Reinecke would have found laughable Conway's notion that Captain Whitby, by dint of superior tactics, would be able to hold his own.
The questions that Mr. Conway had been asking of people in the street were designed to elicit their feelings. To one old man, now reduced to living in the gutter, he had remarked that he supposed the German airmen were only following their orders. Even though it certainly wsn't safe to be seen being followed and cursed by an old man of obviously Republican sentiments, Mr. Conway had looked surprisingly pleased. His other remarks and questions had been a good deal more tactful, but they, too, had produced angry responses. By the time that he had arrived at the park, he felt that he knew all he needed to know.
The Junkers bombers and Republican fighters, approaching the city from opposite directions, must have seen each other at almost the same time. Oberst Reinecke had spotted both groups with his binoculars, and was now searching the sky frantically. He couldn't find the German fighter escort anywhere. The Junkers bombers were really only converted transport planes, and were largely defenseless against fighters. Unless they turned back immediately, the Republican fighters would be on them before they even released their bombs.
What really concerned the Oberst was the trouble they had been having with their radio communication. More often than not, they had had to rely on hand signals. The German fighters were very likely above the clouds. However, without any means to summon them, the bombers might well be decimated without being able to call for help.
There was a lapse of only seconds before a sleek monoplane with squared wings and a long nose dropped out of the clouds to a position above, and in front of, the bombers. It was, to the relief of Reinecke, followed by eleven others.
He immediately turned his binoculars back to the opposing force, and was astounded by what he saw. The leader banked his fighter sharply away, and climbed slowly to the cloud base. The other twenty aircraft, who had been spread out in a line-abreast formation, now broke into two formations, each line astern. They continued to fly eastward with the clear intention of disengaging, if not hiding in the clouds. It seemed to Oberst Reinecke that he had never, in his long military career, seen such a clear case of cowardice in action.
He had had his doubts about Spaniards from the beginning. This, he supposed, was what happened when one mixed native indiscipline with anarchism. It was probably, he entered in his notebook, a Republican victory of sorts that they had retreated in formation, and not in all directions.
Mr. Conway, in an even better position to witness events, at this moment lowered his binoculars and walked quickly around the center of the park. He looked briefly at a shallow ditch behind a row of shrubs, and then took position next to an equestrian statue on a large marble base, where he seated himself. For the next few minutes he sat there watching. With his tennis shoes and turned-up white sailor hat, he could easily have been taken for a bird-watcher of the more serious sort, identifying a flight of geese at altitude.
The Republican aircraft having disappeared into the clouds, Mr. Conway watched the German fighters, which had accelerated well ahead of the bombers. They were almost directly overhead when one group climbed sharply into the clouds, and the other turned in a circle to the north. It was then only a few more seconds before the second group also disappeared into the clouds. That left Mr. Conway only the bombers to watch. They seemed to be headed directly toward him.
Oberst Reinecke was now certain that, for once, their radio communications were working. One flight had gone up to see if the enemy fighters were above the relatively thin layer of cloud, while the other had remained in touch with the bombers. Evidently the enemy had been sighted, since the remaining flight had climbed to join the first one.
Reinecke would have preferred that the Junkers bomb from a somewhat higher altitude than planned, so that they could take cover in the clouds if any enemy fighters escaped and attacked them. However, it seemed an unlikely outcome. In any case, there was nothing he could do about it now.
The noise of airplane engines, particularly those of the approaching bombers, was now quite loud. It took a sharp ear to pick up the sound of machine-gun fire above the clouds, but both observers on the ground looked quickly up. Mr. Conway, noticing that the bombers had turned toward the southern part of the city, walked away from the statue far enough to get a clear view of the whole sky.
Turning to scan it in all directions, he happened to be looking at the part of the cloud which was suddenly dotted with a speck of color. It took a second or two to get his glasses focussed on a twisting column of black smoke, and follow it to its base. Even though one wing was collapsed against the fuselage, and half the plane was engulfed in flame, Conway was able to get a good look at the other wing- tip. It was the rounded one of a Mureaux.
The burning plane lost altitude surprisingly slowly. The pilot had either already jumped, or would never do so. As he searched adjoining areas of the sky, looking for a parachute, Conway caught sight of another Mureaux. This plane was trailing a thin stream of white smoke. However, it was still being flown, and it disappeared again into the cloud.
Detonations were now shaking the ground, and the sharp variations in air pressure caused Conway to stagger dizzily and fall. He picked himself up just in time to see another burning fighter flutter down. This, too, was a Mureaux, and, even as he watched, a parachute opened beyond it.
Oberst Reinecke was sufficiently exultant to address a few words to his driver, who was standing nearby. He had immediately identified the first falling plane as a French fighter. That wasn't surprising. The Republicans were getting obsolete planes from half the world. Then there was the second, burning and trailing smoke. And then, almost at the same time, there was a third republican fighter on fire. He watched until it exploded in mid-air. By then the second was gone. It must have already crashed.
The bombers, in perfect security, made several passes and turned to return to base. During this time, the Oberst hadn't seen any further evidence of fighter activity, but was gratified to see impressive new clouds of smoke rise from the city. There were some places where he could even see flames leaping above the buildings.
Looking at his watch, Reinecke realized that the fighter action should now be ending. He was about to return to his car when he noticed something in the distance, off to the side of the smoke. It was another stricken plane, and he quickly got his glasses on to it. The distance was great, but he could see that the plane wasn't on fire. It was, however, going down in an uncontrolled spin, probably with a dead pilot at the controls. Finally, he got a clear glimpse of the Mureaux wing-tips. That made four.
As the plane disappeared behind a ridge without a trace, Reinecke wondered if it had been an undamaged plane whose Spanish pilot had jumped in a fit of panic. He could see no parachute, but he might easily have missed it. Still staring into the distance, he saw still another score. This one was little more than a ball of flame shooting toward earth. Undoubtedly another Mureaux. That made five. He waited another quarter hour, and then headed for the car. His own fighters would, by now, be low on fuel.
Mr. Conway had counted two Mureaux shot down and one damaged before the smoke from the city obscured his view. To get clear of it, he sprinted down a street leading off the square to the west. As he went, there was a hit in the next block. The shock knocked down the detached wall of a house that had previously been burned out. Conway ran right through the cloud of dust, leaping over obstructions, and was shouted at by a man at the corner. The man apparently took him for a crazy foreigner who had panicked in the bombardment, and was now running in circles.
Fortunately, the wind was taking the smoke to the south, and there was an open space at the end of the street which afforded a fairly open view of the sky to the west. Almost the first sight from the new viewpoint was the unwelcome one of another Mureaux going down in a spin. Some distance away was a parachute. It seemed likely to Conway that this was the smoking plane that had earlier disappeared into the cloud. The smoke had stopped when the engine had quit, or had to be turned off, and the pilot had had to jump. He could see now, as the plane approached earth, that the propellor was only windmilling. That made three with, perhaps, another damaged.
The last plane to go down struck Conway as different. He had just seen enough Mureaux shot down to know what they looked like. Even in their death agonies, their relatively low weight to wing area ratio caused them to flutter down while they virtually burned up in the air. This one went down like a shot. Even though it was completely ablaze, it looked almost like a vertical dive at full power. Conway was almost certain that a Mureaux couldn't dive as fast as that, dead or alive.
Sixty miles northwest of Madrid, early afternoon, November 19, 1936.
Mr. Lloyd Bowker had always considered himself a lucky man, except that his luck often had a perverse twist. It had happened first in journalism. As a young man he had been taken on as a reporter with a major Philadelphia paper. It had been due as much to a chance acquaintance as anything. Still, all the others had envied him. Then, within a few months, there had been a lawsuit against his paper, occasioned by one of his pieces. He had exaggerated no more than the others, and what if he had made up a couple of things? It was again a matter of luck, this time bad.
Much the same sort of thing had happened with his marriage. He had married a beautiful woman. Like the job, it was mostly a matter of being in the right place at the right time. In this case, the woman had been furiously angry with the man she loved. She had wanted to spite him. Mr. Bowker had been available. Then, within a year, she had gained fifty pounds.
Over the years there had been a few successes. As before, Mr. Bowker happened to be present and available when major stories broke, and he was a competent reporter. On the other hand, his career had stood still for many years. He had recently written a letter of complaint, and had asked for better assignments. His editor, a younger man, had said in reply,
"Bowker, we never give you the best assignments. You look wrong. You act wrong. You look shabby and underfed. You always have your notebook out, all set to ask, Who?, What?, When?, Where?, and Why? That's what we want for the police court. You've never moved beyond it. To interview an important man, we need someone who looks important himself. Someone who can make him relax and say what he hadn't meant to say. Somebody like that would take a look at you and cover his face with his hat."
Ironically, it was within a month of that little talk that Mr. Bowker got the assignment to cover the Spanish Civil War for his paper. It was as always. The man who had been supposed to go came down with yellow jaundice. Bowker knew some Spanish. No one else did.
There had been a joker, as usual. He was to cover the war from the Nationalist side. The owner of the paper was a staunch Catholic, and he wanted everything tilted in that direction. Unfortunately, that was the dull side. Everyone wanted to read about the International Brigades, the anarchists, the woman communist leader, La Pasionara, and her young lovers. They wanted to read about the young English soldier-poet John Cornforth, the American volunteers, and the village massacres. Except for this last, all of these things were on the other side.
As he was driven along the dusty road to attend a press briefing by General Varela's spokesman, Mr. Bowker fell into a torpor. He had had too much to drink the night before. He had felt badly in the morning. He now felt somewhat better, but was conscious of the need to move his bowels. There was nothing in sight in the rolling country but peasant shacks. He supposed that he would have to squat in a field and wipe himself with pages from his notebook.
The top of the next ridge disclosing nothing more promising, Mr. Bowker made the driver stop and went behind the hedge. He was in view of a cottage, really just a hut, but it hardly mattered.
Just when he was beginning to obtain satisfaction, there were shouts from the driver. Mr. Bowker swore at him, and almost lost his balance. Then he heard aircraft engines. Sticking his head through the hedge, he observed a plane flying low and trailing white smoke. Another was behind and slightly above it. They were only about a quarter mile away when there was a long burst of machine-gun fire.
The first plane seemed to lurch, with little flashes appearing on its body and wings. It then dipped, brushed a hedgerow, and lifted. Just when it seemed that it might escape, there was another burst of fire. The fleeing plane was only a short distance away when it slanted down and hit the plowed field. It bounced, skidded a hundred yards, spun around, and came to rest against a stone wall. Mr. Bowker, pulling himself together, ran across the road. In the field, he tripped and fell his length. However, he picked himself up and continued to run.
When he got to the wreck, completely dishevelled and out of breath, Bowker discovered that his driver and a peasant had already helped the pilot out. The man was young and blonde. He seemed unhurt, though obviously badly shaken. He was also German.
Since it was common knowledge by this time that Germans were flying combat, this fact wasn't particularly significant. However, a well-conducted interview with a recently downed German pilot could amount to the sort of journalistic triumph Bowker had always sought. Indeed, the pilot, profoundly relieved to find himself alive, was ready, indeed anxious, to talk. But there was always that little twist. Mr. Bowker didn't speak German. The young pilot had no English, and only a few words of Spanish.
It took no common language to offer the German a ride, and, after briefly looking at the wreck of his plane, he accompanied the others across the field.
Mr. Bowker hurried his guest as much as he could. He was unhappily aware that the other was recovering his balance. The moment had passed when he would have blurted out everything to anyone. He would now be defensive, and he would try to avoid giving away military secrets. He might even wonder who Mr. Bowker was.
All the time they were walking, Bowker was trying to think where, outside the German authorities in Spain, he could find someone who could interpret. As they got to the road, inspiration struck.
Mr. Bowker had always patronized houses of prostitution. His editor, contemptuous of this practice, had sometimes wondered out loud if that was where he got most of his stories. The same editor would have claimed to be able to predict that Mr. Bowker's first act, on arriving in Spain, would be to find himself a suitable place to go. In any case, these somewhat demeaning recollections were now put gloriously aside.
Only two nights ago, the madam had offered him a Jewish girl, a refugee. Mr. Bowker had refused. He didn't share the Spanish view that Jewish women were unusually passionate in the bedroom. More to the point, he didn't want very much passion. But, passionate or not, she would almost certainly speak German. If he had any luck at all, she would have learned some Spanish by this time. She might even speak English.
The girl was still there. A self-possessed young woman, it looked as if she had turned to prostitution only as a last resort. Perhaps she was trying to get enough money to get to America. Even the sight of a wild and desperate American with a German pilot in tow didn't seem to upset or confuse her.
When Mr. Bowker addressed her in Spanish, she replied in fluent English with a British accent. Good as her English was, her native language turned out to be, as he had expected, German. Taking her aside, he was able to quickly explain the situation, pay her in advance, and give her his instructions.
At the end of half an hour, Mr. Bowker, sitting in the outer room, was getting nervous. The madam had no coffee, and the red wine was only making things worse. He had made a snap judgment. He had told the pilot, through his new interpreter, that he, Senor Matanzas, was a Spanish civilian working for the Condor Legion. The pilot's squadron would send a car for him later. In the meantime, due to his recent harrowing experiences, the young man was to enjoy the comforts of the house. Senor Matanzas, nee Bowker, had seen enough of the Germans to think that this wouldn't strike the young man as preposterous. It didn't.
It bothered Senor Matanzas not a whit to practise deception on this scale. But he was worried about the young German. The appearance of the women had completed his transformation. He was no longer a badly shaken boy who had been shot down in a funk. He was a gallant, if not heroic, member of the Luftwaffe. He acted as if he hadn't been defeated at all. He had, in the course of shooting down numerous enemy planes, encountered a mechanical defect which forced him down. The landing had been handled coolly, and with great skill. He would be back in the air tomorrow. The man positively swaggered when he approached the girl.
Mr. Bowker now wished that he had taken that opportunity to interview the man. He could have gotten something, and he could have separated out the lies later. Instead, he had sent them off together, telling the girl that she would be richly rewarded for everything she could get out of him concerning the day's action. But what would happen, really? The man would rather act than talk, and a prostitute cannot ask questions with a notebook in her hand. She might forget or distort what he said. Alternatively, the man might simply go to sleep after the act. He might also think that the girl was a spy. All factions in Spain had a paranoia about spies.
As against this, the girl had looked and sounded intelligent. She had taken in the situation quickly, and an intensity had come over her. She probably took Mr. Bowker for a Republican spy. Or anti-Nazi, at any rate. She wasn't motivated by money alone.
It was another ten minutes before the girl appeared, dressed in a bathrobe.
"He's asleep now, and I've got everything in chronological order. I'll tell you before I forget."
She sat down across from Mr. Bowker, and spoke quickly.
"He took off with his squadron, the 32nd Staffeln. They escorted two squadrons of Junkers bombers attacking Madrid. They encountered Republican fighter opposition, thirty or forty to their twelve. The enemy tried to flee, but they caught them. They were much faster. The enemy fighters seemed to stand almost still when they overtook them. It was easy. They shot down six or eight right off. He himself got two. One of them exploded in mid-air right in front of him. He damaged a third severely. Then it got harder. The Spanish pilots would turn sharply just as he fired, and he was past them before he could correct his aim. The enemy went into a formation he had never seen. The second he got into position to fire, two or three other planes would be shooting at him. He saw one of his friends shot down, and had bullets in his own wings. When they turned back, they were harrassed. His engine was hit, and trailed smoke. He could make hardly more than 200 kilometers an hour. Two others were escorting him because he was damaged. They were all low on fuel and ammunition."
The woman broke off and caught her breath while Mr. Bowker scribbled furiously. When she began again, she spoke more slowly.
"He got very emotional at this point, even though we had already ..."
The woman stopped. She didn't look embarrassed, but as if she weren't sure of how to describe the situation. Then she continued,
"I had to hold him as if he were a child having a nightmare. Anyway, the situation seems to have been roughly as follows: There was only one plane following them at this point, and the pilot, having pushed his canopy back, was clearly visible. He had a beard, and looked older. He kept scaring them, diving on them, and forcing them to maneuver. Then they got so low on fuel that they couldn't afford to maneuver any more. The bearded man, a devil he called him, seemed to know. He dove and killed one of this man's companions with a burst right into the cackpit. The other escorting fighter accelerated and almost got away before the bearded man got him too. Our man was all alone and damaged. He knew he was going to be killed. The bearded man lined up on his tail, and he tried to dodge, but it was no good. He thinks he may have let go the controls when his instrument panel was shattered. By some miracle his plane landed itself in a field and didn't catch fire. The next thing he knew, a man who looked like his Uncle Horst was leading him to a car."
Mr. Bowker raced off. He would fill out the story and write it as an interview by himself. It would make it clear that the Nazi supermen were getting shot down handily by Republican airmen. The owner of the paper wouldn't like that, but the interview might help Mr. Bowker get a better job with another paper and a more simpatico editor.
Since the Nationalists and Nazis would surely censor anything of the sort, Mr. Bowker planned to smuggle the interview into France, and have it sent from there. The pilot would have to find his own way.
For a moment, Mr. Bowker wondered what they might do to the girl when
they discovered her role in the affair. He should have warned her to clear
out. Anyhow, he would have to get his interview written quickly in order
to get it into the hands of a man he knew who was going to Paris that night.
This time, it looked as if Mr. Bowker's luck might hold.
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