Joaquín García Morato

Text by Divan Muller
Although the Spanish Civil War has been described as a proving ground or trial run for World War II, it was very much a real war. Intense air combat produced numerous aces, but one pilot from North Africa stood out from the crowd.
Early life and training

Joaquín García Morato y Castaño was born on 4 May 1904 in Melilla, a Spanish city neighbouring Morocco in North Africa. At an early age, he was sent to Toledo, in Spain, where he attended a military academy. Later, when Morato was 19 years old, he returned to Africa, where he served as a lieutenant with the infantry in Spanish Morocco. In 1923, he earned a pilot’s licence at a civil flight school, before requesting to serve with the Spanish Army’s air arm, the ‘Aeronáutica Militar’. Morato then received military flight training on Avro 504s.

As an interwar combat pilot, Morato flew De Havilland DH.9s and Bristol F.2Bs in dozens of counter-insurgency missions in Morocco’s ‘Rif War’, which lasted from 1920 to 1927. Whilst flying the latter aircraft type, Morato frequently encountered intense anti-aircraft fire. He was wounded and had to make forced landings on at least two occasions. In 1928, he crashed into the sea and was hospitalised for several months. After he had recovered from his wounds, Morato was trained to fly a variety of aircraft types, including multi-engine bombers. He also gained a fair amount of fame as an aerobatic pilot, even winning international aerobatic competitions. By 1932, Morato was serving as an instructor in aerobatics and instrument flying. Two years later, he flew missions to help suppress an Asturian miners' strike. He did so in support of General Francisco Franco, who would later become Spain’s dictator.

Civil War

In early 1936, the left wing Popular Front, an alliance of socialist, communist and liberal parties, won Spain’s national election. Morato’s loyalty to the monarchy, as well as his reputation as a staunch Catholic, was viewed with suspicion. Therefore, despite the fact that he was a veteran combat pilot with almost 1 900 flying hours’ experience, Morato was transferred to an infantry unit in the Catalonian region.

Later that year, whilst Morato was on holiday in London, England, a coup d'état took place in Spain. Nationalists, consisting of an alliance of various conservative, Catholic and right-wing groups, aimed to take control of the country’s government. This caused Spain to be divided between two factions, resulting in an inevitable civil war. Those loyal to the Spanish republic’s government were known as ‘Republicans’ and were supported by the Soviet Union. The Nationalists, led by General Franco, were supported by Germany, Italy and Portugal. In the initial stages of the war, the Republicans had the most aircraft, whilst the Nationalists had a greater number of volunteer pilots.

Upon hearing of the coup, Morato immediately returned to Spain and joined the Nationalists’ air force. On 12 August 1936, Morato claimed his first aerial victory whilst flying a French-built Nieuport-Delage NiD-52. He did so by shooting down an enemy Vickers Vildebeest near the city of Antequera. Later that month, Morato switched to flying a German-built Heinkel He-51. He almost immediately shot down three more Republican aircraft. In September, Morato became the first Spanish pilot to fly an Italian Fiat CR.32 into combat. This became his aircraft of choice. Soon, Morato became the first Nationalist ace. Later that year, Morato’s unit began fighting alongside German and Italian squadrons. By the end of the year, he had shot down several Soviet fighters, which were fighting on the side of the Republicans. On 3 January 1937, Morato intercepted two Soviet Tupolev SB-2 bombers. His report on the day’s events read as follows, “After several days of studying the attacks on Córdoba, I had worked out when the bombers usually appeared, what altitude they were at and the direction from which they typically approached. Making full use of this information, I started flying standing patrols at a height of 16 500 ft over the city. One morning, whilst circling over Córdoba, I noticed two aircraft heading towards the city at high speed. Heading towards them as fast as I could, I quickly identified the contacts as the two twin-engined bombers that had been regularly attacking Córdoba. I opened fire and hit one of the aircraft’s engines. This soon caught alight, leaving a trail of black smoke in its wake. The stricken bomber turned around and headed back from whence it came and I followed, hoping to see it crash. I also saw the second bomber turn back in the direction of home. The damaged bomber did indeed crash some 40 miles from Córdoba near to the communist-held airport of Andujar, the aircraft being engulfed in flames. As I turned for home, my fighter came under attack from the second bomber. The latter had somehow got to within 1 200 ft of me and it was firing at me with its two machine guns. This was a dangerous moment for me, as I was more than 20 miles from Nationalist territory. It had never dawned on me that the bomber crew would dare attack me. However, I remained cool, banked away sharply and then fired at the enemy. Luck was with me, as one of my bullets hit the aeroplane in a vital spot and within seconds it had spun away and hit the ground, exploding in flames barely a mile away from my first victim. I then flew back to Córdoba, where I was showered with hearty congratulations from the city’s civilian population.”

By July 1937, the number of aircraft in the Nationalists’ arsenal had grown and Morato had been given command of an entire fighter wing. Despite the time-consuming duties associated with his new position, Morato occasionally had opportunities to fly missions. His number of ‘kills’ continued to increase. In 1938, he was sent to Italy on a lengthy ‘technical mission’. Upon his return, Morato became chief of air operations for the First Air Brigade. In December that year, he led a squadron of CR.32s in support of a major offensive to capture Barcelona. His most noteworthy mission took place on 24 December, when he shot down no less than three Soviet Polikarpov R-5s. In January 1940, Morato claimed his final kill, a Polikarpov I-15. He had shot down a total of forty enemy aircraft, almost double that of the second highest scoring Spanish ace. Over the course of the war, he had flown more than 500 missions.

Three months later, the Spanish Civil War ended with a Nationalist victory. Most Republican pilots fled to countries such as Russia, Mexico and France. General Franco remained in control of Spain from the end of the war to his death in in 1975.
On 4 April 1939, Morato flew his CR.32 in a mock dogfight in front of newsreel cameras. Whilst performing particularly dangerous low-level aerobatics, his aircraft struck the ground, killing him on impact at the age of 34. About 20 000 people, including General Franco, attended Morato’s funeral in Madrid. His coffin was then moved to Malaga, where about 100 000 mourners attended his burial. He was posthumously awarded Spain’s Military Medal and Italy’s Gold Medal of Military Valour. Later, he was given the title ‘Count of Jamara’.

With the end of the Spanish Civil War, it seemed as though peace had descended upon Europe, but only five months later, World War II began.