For 85 years, the coordinates of a German Junkers remained a mystery after Russian fighters shot it down during the Battle of Brunete.
On July 25, 1937, Russian Republican forces successfully downed a Junkers Ju-52 of the German Condor Legion. This was the first historical instance of a German aircraft being shot down at night. However, the feat was only made possible thanks to the full moon and two Soviet planes waiting for the prey.
Although radar was invented in 1935, it was not developed enough to detect – let alone shoot down an aircraft at night.
The Russian fighters of the Republican Air Force attacked and it was a hit. The plane went down in flames. Only the second time in history had a plane been shot at night, the first being in World War I.
For 85 years, the location where the Junkers hit the ground remained a mystery. Finally, archeologists Jorge Morín and Luis Antonio Ruiz Casero successfully located the aircraft in Santa María de la Alameda, Madrid.
They detailed their search and discovery of the plane in a published paper. The two found a fuselage, coins, and bullets – making the discovery “a milestone in aviation history.”
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The General Directorate of Heritage of the Community of Madrid commissioned Audema. The consulting firm investigated the Zorrerón-Cerro Pelado position. The so-called position was a prominent point to the north of the front lines.
Ferocious engagements took place there between Franco’s Nationalists and Republican Forces during the battle.
The engagement, which resulted in heavy losses for Republican forces, was entering its final stages at the end of July 1937. The Condor Legion’s deployment at Brunete tipped the balance of air superiority in favor of the Nationalists.
Polikarpov I-15 vs. Junkers
The Commander of the Republican Air Force, Ignacio Hidalgo de Cisneros, established a system of night-time defences to hinder the incessant bombings. The researchers noted that shooting down an aircraft in night combat was virtually impossible. Prior to the implementation of radar, it was like shooting in the dark. Literally.
The Republicans had the plan to counter the German Junkers bombings on civilian populations during the Spanish Civil War.
They noticed that the plane flew over Santa María de la Alameda at the same time on consecutive nights, heading for Alcalá de Henares and Colmenar Viejo in the Republican zone. Two Polikarpov I-15 fighters were then scrambled to wait in the air until the right moment to strike.
Pilots Mikhail Yakushin and Anatoli Serov carried out the attack. Serov flew at 2,000 meters while Yakushin ascended to 3,000m to identify the enemy aircraft by the flash of its engines.
Yakushin then positioned himself to the right of the Junkers and fired at its fuel tank, causing it to burst into flames. Although the plane’s gunner responded with a machine gun burst, it was too late. The Junkers went into a tailspin, crashing into the Guadarrama mountains.
One of the four crew members survived and was captured by a Republican patrol.
After their successful attack on the German Junkers during the Spanish Civil War, pilots Yakushin and Serov were hailed as heroes and received extensive media coverage. Republican President Juan Negrín awarded them gold watches and automobiles and promoted them to Captains.
Former Republican Commissary Eugenio Rubio Zori, who aided in guiding Yakushin and Serov back to the ground, described the Condor Legion prisoner in 1977.
“He was a starving German. The signals section had to be held back because some had lost relatives in (bombing raids over) Colmenar Viejo. He didn’t know what was going on. He kept asking for Salamanca, Salamanca (in the Nationalist zone). I told him: ‘Not Salamanca, you prisoner, prisoner of the Republic, look at the emblems. Me, war commissary; this one (pointing to the commander of the Santa María de Alameda post, Francisco Sebastián), Republican officer.’ The poor man began to cry. From the first moment, we felt only compassion for him”.
Using the information recorded by Zori and a report on the incident kept at the Military Archives in Ávila, the researchers were able to locate the Junkers.