Biplane fighter aces


Mayor Felipe del Río Crespo

9 September 1912 – 22 April 1937

Felipe del Río Crespo was born at Nueva Montaña, in Santander, on 9 September 1912.

He subsequently studied for an engineering degree.

As the holder of a private pilot’s licence issued in October 1933, he joined the air force at Cuatro Vientos upon being called up for military service.

Del Río Crespo commenced his elementary training as a reserve military pilot flying de Havilland DH 60 Moth Majors, and graduated as a cabo.
He undertook his advanced training on outdated DH 9s, graduating near the top of his class in June 1934.

Together with classmates Arístides García López Rengel and Manuel Izquierdo, del Río Crespo took part in the Spanish Vuelta Aérea (Air Tour), flying a DH 60 from Alcalá, before participating in an air show at Barajas that was attended by the president of the Republic.

Del Río Crespo was subsequently selected for the team of the Escuela de Vuelo, which went to Lisbon for an international airshow.

In July 1935, he was promoted to sargento de complement (Reserve Sergeant), after which he was discharged.

The outbreak of the civil war found him in Bilbao and, as a military pilot, del Río Crespo reported to the government authorities. He flew civilian light aircraft from Lamìaco airfield and dropped leaflets on the rebel-held barracks at Loyola, in San Sebastián. On one of these flights he crashed, writing his aircraft off.

After a short spell of re-training at Alcalá de Henares, he returned to the Northern front. He initially flew as an air gunner and bombardier in de Havilland DH 85 Leopard Moth light aircraft that had been pressed into military service, and also in Breguet XIX ‘12-83’ flown by brigada José Rivera.
Later, del Río Crespo flew Breguet XIX ‘12-107’, and in September he was sent to La Albericia airfield and then to Carreño to fly sorties on the Santander and Oviedo fronts. His pilot throughout this period was sargento piloto Benjamín Gutiérrez Junco and their Breguet XIX was coded ‘12-202’. He also flew with cabos ametralladores-bombarderos Eduardo Tornil Estada, Antonio Silvano Rodríguez and Gumersindo Gutiérrez Merino.

In October 1936, del Río Crespo was promoted to sargento and sent to serve with comandante Alfredo Sanjuán, chief of staff in the North.

The first fighters to arrive on the Northern front were two Ni-H.52s flown from Barcelona by sargento Emilio Villaceballos and teniente Amador Silverio Jiménez. These aircraft were not reinforced until November 1936, when 15 I-15s were shipped to Santander aboard the SS A Andreyev, together with their Soviet pilots and groundcrew. These fighters subsequently flew from Carreño airfield (Gijón) on the Asturias front and were led by Boris Turzhanskii and Konstantin Baranchuk.
During their first sortie, the I-15 pilots claimed to have shot down an enemy Fokker F.XII tri-motor and a Heinkel He 46, although both aircraft - which had indeed suffered battle damage - managed to land at Navia airfield.
The Chatos of the Escuadrilla de Chatos del Norte also participated in the offensive at Villareal de Álava in December 1936, and by year-end the Soviet pilots had been joined by Spanish aviators teniente Juan Roldán Maldonado and brigada Felipe del Río Crespo (they converted to the I-15 in late November).

On 28 December, vver the Northern Front, alférez del Río Crespo of the Escuadrilla de Chatos del Norte made his first claim when he attacked a DH 89 Dragon Rapide, scoring 200 hits on the enemy aircraft and wounding the observer.
Despite the damage, the pilot (Ansaldo) managed to limp back the crippled aircraft to Lasarte airfield, in San Sebastián.

He took part in the defence of Bilbao on 3-4 January 1937.

On 4 January, the He 51B-1s of J/88 escorted Ju 52/3ms bombing enemy positions when they were surprised above Torrijos by Republican I-15s. The escorting fighters claimed three enemy fighters over the Bilbao area when Leutnant Wolf-Heinrich von Houwald (2 Staffel) claimed an I-16 and Unteroffizier Erwin Sawallisch (4 Staffel) and Oberleutnant Harro Harder (1 Staffel) claimed an I-15 each. Oberleutnant Harder (flying He 51B-1 2-64) described his first claim for a subsequent propaganda article:

“I hear machine guns behind me. A Red is coming for me sharply from above, his radial engine appearing like a giant eye. I pull “2-64” into a turn and the Red streaks past with two of our fighters already in pursuit. Far below, down in the valley, I see one turning around. Using my superior speed I know I can block him off. I get behind him, fire, he turns, I cut him off, another turn, the smoke twists from my tracer shells disappear into his machine. Now he climbs, black, with a red band in front of the tail, rolls onto his back and plunges almost vertically to the ground. I pull myself together - the intoxication has blinded me to everything else going on. I see a He 51 nearby. Exhausted, I pull up and fly to Vitoria, where I make a low-level loop over the airfield.”
One Ju 52/3m from 3.K/88 was lost over Bilbao when they attacked the Campsa fuel depots. Oberfeldwebel Adolf Hermann and Karl Schmidt parachuted but Feldwebel Herbert Barowski, Unteroffizier Paul Ziepek and Gefreiter Hans Schüll were all unable to escape the burning bomber and were all killed. This was the only bomber loss on this day. Once upon the ground, Oberfeldwebel Adolf Hermann tried to defend himself with his pistol from an armed mob but was rapidly overpowered. His body was dragged through the streets of Bilbao provoking a demand for rerisals by the Legion Condor which were, however, refused.
The Republicans reported that eight I-15s intercepted nine Ju 52/3ms escorted by 20 He 51s, claiming two Ju 52/3ms and two He 51s. One Ju 52/3m crashed near Bilbao while the second crashed at Vitoria airfield. Spanish sources credit the Ju 53/3m that was shot down near Bilbao to alférez del Río Crespo from the Escuadrilla de Chatos del Norte. There is some confusion in this claim since Soviet sources credits the Ju 52/3m shot down at Bilbao to Leitenant Sergei Bulkin while the second was credited to Leitenant Nikolai Petrukhin (both from Escuadrilla Turzhanskii). No claimants for the He 51s have been found.
One I-15 was lost when teniente Juan Roldán Maldonado of the Escuadrilla de Chatos del Norte was shot down and killed in I-15 ‘15’. Three more I-15s were damaged and Leitenant Petrukhin was wounded.

Del Río Crespo, CO of the Escuadrilla de Chatos del Norte, was promoted to teniente on 22 March.

The Escuadrilla de Chatos del Norte took part in combat over Bilbao on 18 April. The unit claimed one of the new Dornier Do 17s of the Legion Condor, which crashed in government territory. Its demise was credited to capitán del Río Crespo (CO).
Another Do 17 was claimed as a shared by sargento Andrés Rodríguez Panadero (same aircraft?).

On 13 April, the Escuadrilla de Chatos del Norte took part in combat over Bilbao. One German Do 17 was claimed by teniente del Río Crespo (CO).

On 20 April, capitán del Río Crespo and his Escuadrilla de Chatos del Norte accounted for the Breguet XIX flown by capitán José Antonio del Val Núñez, who was seriously wounded and forced to land near Azpeitia (credited to del Río Crespo).

On 22 April 1937, Leutnant Günther Radusch and Feldwebel Franz Heilmayer of 2.J/88 (Bf 109B) each claimed an I-15 while Hauptmann Lothar von Janson claimed one unconfirmed. One of these was flown by seven-victory Republican ace capitán del Río Crespo (CO of the Escuadrilla de Chatos del Norte), who was killed.
The three pilots flying with del Río Crespo, tenientes Julián Barbero López, José González Feo and Leopoldo Morquillas Rubio, stated their commander had fallen victim to Bf 109s while Barbero avoided being shot down by the German fighters by tricking his opponents into thinking that his aircraft had been terminally damaged, although he was able to land at Lamiaco.

“At 1600 hrs a flight patrolling near the airfield sighted nine twin-engined bombers and several fighters heading for Bilbao. The government aircraft forced them into combat lasting 20 minutes and shot down two enemy fighters. One was a Heinkel and the other was unknown. In this combat one aircraft was lost.”
The lost I-15 was the one flown by capitán del Río Crespo. His posthumous promotion to mayor was dated 22 April 1937.

At the time of his death, del Río Crespo was credited with 7 biplane victories, all of them claimed while flying the Polikarpov I-15.

Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
1 28/12/36   1 DH 89 (a) Destroyed I-15   Northern Front Escuadrilla de Chatos del Norte
2 04/01/37   1 Ju 52/3m (b) Destroyed I-15   near Bilbao Escuadrilla de Chatos del Norte
6 18/04/37   1 Do 17 Destroyed I-15   Bilbao area Escuadrilla de Chatos del Norte
7 20/04/37   1 Breguet XIX (c) Destroyed I-15   near Azpeitia Escuadrilla de Chatos del Norte

Biplane victories: 7 destroyed.
TOTAL: 7 destroyed.
(a) In fact, the DH 89 was only damaged.
(b) Republican fighters claimed 2 Ju 52/3m and 2 He 51. Only the loss of 1 Ju 52/3m can be verified.
(c) Breguet XIX flown by capitán José Antonio del Val Núñez, who was WIA.

Aces of the Legion Condor – Robert Forsyth, 2011 Osprey Publishing, Oxford, ISBN 978-1-84908-347-8
Condor: The Luftwaffe in Spain 1936-1939 - Patrick Laureau, 2000 Hikoki Publications, Ottringham, ISBN 1-902109-10-4
Fighter Pilots Of The Spanish Republic (Vol. 1) - Rafael A. Permuy López, Historica 36/39 no. 1, ISBN 84-87314-89-9
Russian Fighter Aces of 1914-1953 years
Soviet airmen in the Spanish civil war 1936-1939 - Paul Whelan, 2014 Schiffer Publishing Ltd, ISBN 978-0-7643-0
Spanish Republican Aces – Rafael A Permuy López, 2012 Osprey Publishing, Oxford, ISBN 978-1-84908-668-4
Aditional information kindly provided by Miguel Ansede Fernández.

Last modified 08 February 2018