A Brief History
On May 7, 1937, while Europe watched the prelude to World War II develop during the Spanish Civil War, the German “volunteer” Condor Legion was deployed with the Heinkel He-51 biplane fighter, an anachronism already obsolete when it was built. More like a relic of World War I, that is exactly the opposition the He-51 first had in the Nieuport biplane fighters flown by the Spanish Republican Air Force.
Monoplanes and all metal planes were definitely not unknown when the He-51 made its combat debut, but the older fabric covered fuselage and wings, upper and lower wing, open cockpit, and twin machine guns mounted on the cowl in front of the pilot would be familiar to any World War I pilot. Despite a decent engine making 750 horsepower, aerodynamics limited the fighter to a maximum of 205 mph, a full 70 mph slower than the Soviet SB bombers it would soon be tasked with intercepting (which of course it could not). Initial opposition from Nieuports could be handled, but Soviet Polkarpov biplanes were 15 mph faster and the Soviet I-16 monoplane fighter with retractable undercarriage and armed with 2 X c20mm cannon and 2 X machine guns zipped along at an unbeatable 326 mph!
The He-51 was the first of the Nazi Era German Luftwaffe fighters, first flying in 1933, a time when the pretense of complying with the Treaty of Versailles was just about done. Despite the obvious faults of the design, about 700 versions (including float planes) of the double wing fighter were built, relegated to light attack duty once the Soviet planes showed up in Spain. In the ground attack role, the He-51 performed well, though its low speed led to numerous losses. Tactics of ground support aerial attack were developed by the German armed forces during the Spanish Civil War that led to the Blitzkrieg integrated Air/Ground combined arms approach of World War II. (The He-51 could carry 6 X 22 pound bombs as well as its twin machine guns.) Sea plane versions were built, and as a trainer and utility aircraft the He-51 remained in Spanish service until 1952, and in limited service with Germany into World War II.
The He-51 was replaced in Spain and in main line Luftwaffe service by the great Messerschmitt Bf-109 all metal monoplane with retractable gear, closed cockpit, cannon and machine gun armament and world beating speed. Over 33,900 Bf-109’s were produced, the most of any fighter plane of all time. (Sources vary.) The Spanish Nationalist Air Force also received the Fiat CR-32 biplane to replace its He-51’s in the fighter role.
While it is true that some biplanes continued to fly in combat during World War II, these were few and far between and were not front line fighter aircraft, but observation and light night bombing or float equipped planes, as well as the estimable Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber responsible for stopping the mighty Bismarck. The Spanish Civil War was the last time fabric covered biplanes with open cockpits would be the top guns of the day, however briefly.
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you have a favorite warplane of the pre-World War II era? If so, please share your opinions with us in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Caruana, Richard and Alfredo Logoluso. Fiat CR.32 Aces of the Spanish Civil War (Aircraft of the Aces). Osprey Publishing, 2010.
Franco, Lucas Molina and Rafael A. Permuy Lpez. The Experimental Units of Hitler’s Condor Legion: German Aircraft In Action During the Spanish Civil War (Air War Archive). Frontline Books, 2017.