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Air war over Cuba 1956-1959 PDF Print E-mail
Contributed by Krzysztof Dabrowski   
Nov 30, 2011 at 05:25 PM
When one mentions aerial operations over Cuba, the most famous that spring to mind are those during the Cuban missile crisis from 1962 and the Bay of Pigs invasion attempt a year earlier; but the longest and most intense was the COIN campaign fought by Batista's forces against Castro's insurgency. This civil war is often overlooked - especially the aerial side of the operations - which is what this article proceeds to analyze in detail.

To say that Cuba's corrupt and oppressive ruler Fulgencio Batista was not popular with his people is an understatement. Considering this, it should be no surprise that many wanted to remove him from power and since voting Batista out was not an option other means were tried. One such attempt was made by Fidel Castro who led an attack against the Moncada Barracks in Santiago on 26 July 1953. [1] This action came to nought with most of the attackers either killed or captured and Fidel ending up in prison. Yet in 1955 he was freed as a result of an amnesty and went to Mexico where he started preparing an armed expedition to Cuba. Before moving on it should be pointed out that Castro was not alone in his desire to deal with Batista and everything else the dictator stood for. There were even plots in the military such as the one headed by colonel Barquin. Among the conspirators were also FAEC (Cuba's air arm - see below) personnel, for example Lt. Villafaña who was a pilot. The plot was compromised in April 1956 but an even greater challenge to Batista's rule lay ahead. Having finished their preparations a band of armed rebels under Fidel's command set out for Cuba in the yacht “Granma”.

Before moving on Cuba’s air arm deserves a few words. The FAEC (Fuerza Aérea Ejército de Cuba – Cuban Army Air Force) was a semi autonomous organisation mainly equipped with US made World War II vintage aircraft such as B-26 “Invaders” and P-47 “Thunderbolts” (the only jets were T-33 combat capable trainers), transports and other auxiliary types as well as floatplanes for it also had a maritime role. Since Cuba had its own military aviation school there was no shortage of trained airmen. Prospects for the future seemed if not bright than at least secure for the United States offered to provide F-80 fighters at its own expense. Therefore it can be stated that by Central American and Caribbean standards the FAEC was a capable force with a solid foundation.

A FAEC "Jug" as the P-47 "Thunderbolts" were also known. Most sources state that Cuba's air arm took delivery of 29 ex-USAF airframes. Together with the B-26 "Invaders" the P-47s formed the backbone of FAEC's combat streangth. By the late 1950s the P-47 was considered obsolete but such propeller driven aircraft were well suited for COIN tasks and thus were exactly the type the FAEC needed when fighting Castro's rebellion. A single P-47 should be on display in Havana. (Albert Grandolini collection)

Granma arrives

Going back to Castro's expedition the Cuban regime received intelligence that something was up and acted accordingly. FAEC aircraft patrolled waters off the Cuban coast hoping to locate “Granma” and deal with the rebels before they set foot on the island. Yet this time fortune was on Castro's side for despite an intensive - relative to FAEC's size and capabilities that is - aerial search the boatload of rebels was not discovered until they reached Cuba on 2 December 1956. The only result of the Air Force's effort was an embarrassing incident when some trigger happy “Thunderbolt” pilots strafed a Honduran ship loaded with bananas inflicting a number of casualties among her crew. Finally the “Granma” was spotted from the air [2] stranded close to the coastline but by this time the rebels were already ashore. Now they "only" had to march inland and start a revolution. This was easier said than done and the rebels were soon exhausted. Without bothering to hide their presence Castro and his men took a rest near Alegría de Pío. Meanwhile the FAEC was looking for the rebels from the air and sure enough spotted the group. Wasting no time ground troops were deployed into the area with airstrikes called in as well. Despite seeing the reconnaissance aircraft which of course must also have seen them, the insurgents failed to take even elementary precautions. As a result they were caught with their pants down and nearly completely annihilated for only twenty-two escaped the government forces' onslaught. However since Fidel, his brother Raúl and "Che" Guevara were among the lucky ones the rebellion was not squashed. From then on the rebels would be much more careful, always striving to avoid detection from the air - the lesson was learned the hard way but it surely sunk in.

While Batista claimed that Castro was killed and would have liked to forget about him, the latter - while down - was not out. Having found a safe heaven in the Sierra Maestra mountains he started to organise an insurgency and soon made himself noticeable. On 16 January 1957, the rebels attacked a small army outpost at la Plata. Seven soldiers were killed or wounded; in addition the spoils comprising weapons, ammunition as well as other military equipment were also of considerable importance. Correctly anticipating that the Army would attempt to pursue them the insurgents prepared an ambush and sure enough an army patrol walked straight into it being virtually wiped out as a result. These were modest victories in military terms but their propaganda value could not be underestimated. Especially that after Castro gave on 17 February an interview to Herbert Matthews of the "New York Times", it was impossible to ignore him much less claim his death. In time the rebels made another military move. On 28 May the insurgents took an army outpost located at El Uvero. As was the case with the earlier La Plata attack the rebels were successful while suffering only small casualties. Substantial amounts of arms and ammunition as well as other supplies were captured and the propaganda effect was even greater than previously. But this was not all - judging that small outposts can not be defended in case of insurgent attacks the military dismantled those located in rebel infested areas. Needles to say this decision greatly increased Castro's freedom of movement.

Failed coup

Insurgents in Sierra Maestra were not Batista's only worry. As a matter of fact the dictator had a narrow escape when on 13 March 1957 the Presidential Palace in Havana was attacked by Directorio Revolucionario (Revolutionary Directorate) rebels. The attackers achieved surprise, managed to penetrate Batista's residence and were close to killing or capturing him except that, by pure coincidence, he had left his office and gone to his apartment because of a headache. In a reaction so typical of most dictators Batista ordered a brutal crackdown which eliminated most Directorio Revolucionario members but many innocent people suffered as well. These events had important side effects: the first was the elimination of a rebel group that could potentially be a competition to Castro while the brutality of the regime even further alienated Cuba's population. The failed palace attack was not everything in stock for Batista. Meanwhile a broad conspiracy involving the Cuban Navy, the Air Force as well as members of civilian groups dissatisfied with the state of affairs was formed. The said elements were to attempt an overthrow of the Cuban dictator in autumn 1957. This rebellion was well planed - or so it seemed - with simultaneous attacks by the Navy, FAEC and armed plotters on the ground to be undertaken at various locations throughout the island. Yet the conspirators failed to coordinate their actions properly and when on 5 September 1957 the Caya Loco naval base in Cienfuegos rebelled it was left with virtually no outside support.

When news of the rebellion reached Havana the regime ordered the Air Force to reconnoiter Caya Loco in order to find out what exactly was going on. Two B-26 with Captain Mario Zúñiga and Captain Agustin Piñeira Machín at the controls performed the mission. The situation became clear as both received ground fire sustaining damage while overflying the base. Wasting no time Batista send in the FAEC to bomb the rebels into submission. The first to strike were P-47s but they were flown by pilots who themselves were also involved in the conspiracy. Not surprisingly the bombing produced no results as the pilots released the ordnance either into the sea or over land but without arming the bombs first. Unfortunately for those concerned all this was witnessed by senior FAEC officers who were observing the action from a C-47 orbiting nearby. Once the “Thunderbolts” returned to base their pilots were grounded and put under investigation. Meanwhile the task of bombing the rebels was given to “Invaders” which were manned by crews which were not part of the anti-Batista plot. These airmen pressed home their attacks and were right on target. Not in a small part due to the bombing the Army was able to take Caya Loco at a cost of 33 men killed in action. There were 60 dead among the rebels while 83 more were captured. The latter were flown out from Cienfuegos by C-54 transport aircraft and subsequently delivered into the hands of the security apparatus.

As far as FAEC was concerned the rebellion had several negative consequences for it. To start with, the following “Thunderbolt” pilots were court marshalled: Major Enrique Carreras Rolas, Major Mario J. Leon Gonzáles, Capt. Gastón Bernal y Fernández, Capt. Eduardo A. Ferrer, Capt. Jorge Perramón Spencer, 1st Lt. Rolando Cossío Soto, 1st Lt. Lázaro Rey Moriña, 1st Lt. Aurelio Martínez Leiro, 2nd Lt. Alvaro Prendes and 2nd Lt. Martín Klein Schiller; in addition many other airmen were discharged from service. This was not exactly a morale booster for the Air Force and to add insult to injury Batista would from then on openly show his distrust for the FAEC though his reaction is hardly surprising. Sever repercussion from the United States were also to follow. The air arm's equipment was virtually exclusively made in USA but the Americans were of the opinion that it should be used for Cuba's defence and not for dealing with Batista's internal problems. For this reason neither spare parts nor ordnance would be provided any more by the US and the FAEC could also kiss good-bye the promised F-80 fighters [3].

Spreading the rebellion

All the time Castro's rebels were working for their intended goal of ending the dictator’s rule. Stepping up their propaganda efforts on 24 February 1958 the "Radio Rebelde" (Rebel Radio) begins transmitting and with this the insurgents had gained the ability to directly put their message across to the Cuban people. Not long after that, on March 1, Raúl Castro leading 67 men marched off from Sierra Maestra to Sierra Cristal mountains north of Santiago with the aim to substantially widen the area of insurgency. The need to boost their ranks as well as firepower was not overlooked by the rebels either. The latter was to be achieved among other things by purchasing weapons abroad. In order to bring them into the country a Costa Rican C-46 (registration TI-1019C) was rented in Miami. On 30 March 1958 the Curtiss transport with Pedro Luis Díaz Lanz at the controls delivered the much needed arms and ammunition to Cienaguilla which was at that time temporary under Fiedel's control. While landing the aircraft was damaged and unable to take off. For this reason, once the cargo was offloaded, the insurgents torched the plane. Due to a lack of proper communications between the rebels Raúl Castro with the band of insurgents under his command sized Moa and its airstrip on 31 March expecting the transport to land there. Of course it never arrived for by that time its remains were not even smouldering anymore and Raúl with his men retreated empty handed. Despite this and other things happening there was little in terms of aerial or general military activity in the time period late 1957 - early 1958 worth mentioning. Yet as subsequent events were to show this was a lull before the storm.

By late spring 1958 the insurgents' ranks swell to about 300 armed men. Obviously Batista could not tolerate this and military COIN efforts were visibly stepped up. Faced with superior enemy forces the rebels utilised ambush tactics when the situation was favourable or evaded government troops when it was not. Thanks to their flexibility the insurgents were able to fight back without attritioning their limited strength. In combating the rebels aircraft were used extensively for reconnaissance as well as strike missions once a target was located. Yet despite its efforts - about 100 missions were flown in May alone - FAEC proved to be not as effective as expected not least because difficult terrain and thick vegetation impaired reconnaissance as well as mitigated the results of air strikes. To make matters worse the insurgents captured an Army radio set complete with the codes used for communications between ground forces and the supporting aircraft. This way Castro's men were able to learn of enemy movements in time and adjust their actions accordingly. A simple change of frequencies or codes could not solve the problem for government forces since in the course of the engagements fought, more communications equipment as well as code material would fall into rebel hands [4]. Thanks to the ability to intercept government forces communications the rebels ambushed several Army units moving on roads previously declared as free from the enemy by FAEC aerial reconnaissance. Frustrated with the inability to deal with the insurgents the Air Force would change its modus operandi to a "gloves off" approach. Large numbers of leaflets were dropped by C-47 transports advising the civilian population to leave the operational area thus creating a free fire zone where anybody spotted could be immediately engaged. Arguably this move made sense from a purely military point of view but produced adverse propaganda effects. Not everybody could or would leave the conflict zone and as a result civilian casualties resulting from FAEC bombing mounted. The rebels wasted no time in exploiting this for their own purpose.

The FAEC was not a "war winner" by itself but having such an asset gave the government side an obvious advantage. It should therefore be no surprise that Castro desired to have aircraft and set about organising an air force of his own. The FAR [5] as it became officially known was to be equipped with civilian aircraft purchased on the commercial market which would be than flown to Cuba. In order to enable this the insurgents constructed an airstrip at the "La Esmeralda" farm in the vicinity of Sagua de Tánamo. This was to be the destination of the first rebel aircraft, a Cessna 195 bought in Miami. However the rebel airfield was discovered by FAEC aircraft on 20 June. The following day a C-47 serving in the reconnaissance role gave the airfield a closer look. Subsequently the location was twice "visited" by mixed two ship formations each consisting of one “Thunderbolt” and one “Invader”. Upon hearing about ongoing FAEC aerial attacks Raúl Castro drove to the scene to personally inspect the situation. He arrived just in time for his jeep to be strafed by a “Beaver” which overflew the place to observe the bombing's results. As far as the rebel Cessna is concerned it never reached the planned destination for the aircraft developed engine trouble crashing in the vicinity of San Germán. Its crew comprising Orestes del Río and Guillermo Verdaguer was fortunate enough to walk away from the incident.

Meanwhile the rebels decided to put pressure on Batista by playing "the American card". Fidel had already accused the United States of violating its own embargo by providing support to the FAEC via the American base at Guantanamo Bay. Since this failed to attract sufficient US attention the insurgents concluded that abducting Americans would. Raúl Castro ordered this to be done on 22 June and soon the rebels had 50 Americans including 28 US servicemen in their custody. It was a bold but at the same time risky step yet the insurgents handled the situation very skilfully. Pretending to be rather hosts than hostage takers the rebels soon gained their captives sympathy and got the American public to listen [6]. Washington obviously could not ignore the situation especially that public opinion in those times still mattered and Batista was seen by "official America" more and more as problem.

Cuban military airmobility on show. Though it failed to be a decisive war winning factor it still gave the government's side a considerable advantage. Taking into account the rather laxed posture of the soldiers pictured it appears the photo was taken during an exercise rather than during actual combat operations. Note a jeep being loaded on the transport (just visible behind the wing) as well as a small observation aircraft to the right. (Albert Grandolini collection)

Operation "Verano"

Considering the situation Batista felt compelled to act. In fact the Cuban military was working since May on a plan codenamed Operation "Verano" which aimed to destroy rebel forces in their Sierra Maestra stronghold thus ending Castro's insurgency once and for all. No less than 12 000 ground troops as well as naval and aviation assets were deployed for this purpose. The first attack was launched on 28 June 1958 by two Army battalions which advanced from Estrada Palma sugar mill into the mountains. As it turned out they did not get very far. Just a few kilometres from their starting point government troops were ambushed by rebel forces under the command of "Che" Guevara. The insurgents fought skilfully and aggressively which could not be said about their adversaries and so the advance was first halted and then pushed back with the retreat soon turning into a rout. Having analysed this setback the Cuban military concluded that marching into the mountains presented too many hazards hence it would be more advisable to bring the troops closer to the enemy without exposing them to potential ambushes first. A seaborne landing seemed to offer such a possibility and preparations to carry out an operation of this kind were undertaken. The plan devised called for a battalion strenght main force to land at the mouth of the La Plata river with two more companies landing to the west. Simultaneously another battalion would move over land to complete a classic hammer and anvil manoeuvre. It was hoped that since the rebels would focus on the amphibious landings the second battalion could move into the mountains without running into an ambush.

The plan was put into effect on July 11 with the main force comprising No.18 Battalion of the Cuban Army coming ashore as planned but when the two additional companies tried to reach the planned landing site they came under heavy machine gun fire. Observing the situation from a helicopter, General Cantillo who was in charge of the operation ordered them to disembark at the same location as the main body. Yet trouble was only beginning for after moving inland the reinforced battalion was quickly surrounded by the insurgents. This was not all for the other battalion which was supposed to attack over land run into determined resistance, failed to overcome it and retreated. It turned out that, despite the number of rebels being limited, Castro did not commit them all to battle but left "Che" and his men in reserve. Once enemy intentions become clear that force went into action and managed to successfully check the second battalion's advance. Going back to No.18 Battalion the unit's position was difficult for it was encircled. In view of likely ambushes a relief operation over land was judged not to be an option. For this reason an intensive effort by the Air Force seemed the only way to save the beleaguered troops. On 15 July the FAEC went into action but numerous missions flown by “Invaders” and “Thunderbolts”, which expanded large amounts of ordnance including incendiary munitions to burn away vegetation shielding the rebels, proved not to be enough. By 21 July government soldiers have had it and laid down their arms.

As a result of this victory Castro become overconfident which brought him into a perilous situation. Namely since it proved impossible to defeat the rebels in the mountains the Cuban Army sought to draw them out into the lowlands. The insurgents took the bait pursuing retreating government troops only to have their main body walk straight into the arms of a superior enemy force. By 31 July, despite attempts to relief them made by "Che", Castro's rebels remained pinned down. Seeing no other way out Fidel offered to negotiate with the regime and in a most surprising move Batista actually agreed to start talks [7]. Castro had no intention of negotiating seriously but managed to buy enough time for the rebels to slip away in small groups back to the Sierra Maestra sanctuary. When the talks failed and the Army decided to deliver the final blow to the insurgents, the latter were already gone. Having no one left to fight with the troops could do nothing but withdraw to their garrisons. By 8 August it was all over but for the Cuban Army, the end result was much more than just a retreat because the entire military from the generals at the top down to privates was demoralized by their inability to defeat the rebels. In contrast the insurgents celebrated as if they had vanquished government troops rather than barely managed to escape them. Arguably the best way to summarize the results of Operation "Verano" is to say, that the Cuban Army failed to wipe out the rebels who survived to fight another day and as subsequent events were to show that day came soon.

Before moving on the obvious question arises: why did Operation "Verano" fail, or to put it into other words how was it possible that 12 000 men could not defeat just 300? To start with the numbers are misleading because the vast majority of troops had to be tasked with blocking the operational area. In addition mountainous terrain favoured the rebels and "channelled" troop movements, also limiting the number of men who could be deployed for battle at any given location; meaning that it was not possible to use more than one or two battalions for actual fighting with the exception of the operation's final engagement. Another set of problems was presented by the soldiers themselves. Their level of training was inadequate for more than half of them were men recruited shortly before. Most enlisted in the military after they found no civilian employment rather than because they felt a sense of patriotic duty. Serving an unpopular dictator was not an incentive to fight either. To put a long story short it should be no surprise that men who lacked both training and motivation failed in their task. As demonstrated, the troops were not up to the job but their leadership was hardly better. Operational control was divided between generals Cantillo and Chaviano - the latter while less competent than the former was politically better connected. Last but not least aviation or more precisely its absence was also an important factor in the fighting's outcome. Available sources seem to indicate that the FAEC took little part in the conduct of Operation "Verano". The Air Force's only noteworthy contribution was made when the situation of No.18 Battalion become dire but since that unit could neither be relived nor break out of encirclement air power alone was unable to save it. Finally it is fair to say that the insurgents would have not melted back into the mountains so easily had there been FAEC aircraft over the scene.

FAEC versus FAR

Having survived Batista's offensive Castro could now launch one of his own. The rebel leader decided that it was time for the insurgency to engulf the rest of Cuba. In order for this to happen groups of rebels (columns) led by Fidel's trusted men were dispatched to other parts of the island. They were to avoid confrontation with government forces while underway and strive to reach mountainous areas where shelter could be found. Once well established in the mountains the rebels would utilise them as a base for their activity in a given area. Among those to lead a column was "Che" Guevara. On 30 August a rebel Beechcraft D 18 with weapons and ammunition for Guevara's men landed in the vicinity of Cayo Espino. However the landing site was spotted from the air by the FAEC and in no time subjected to intensive aerial attacks. Government troops were also sent in to secure the location. If that was not enough the rebels also lost a truck which was transporting fuel for their vehicles - "Che" and his men planed to travel in style rather than march on foot all the way. In order to stop the bombardment the insurgents burned the plane which was attracting enemy attention and on 31 August set out on foot. As it turned out their woes were not over. The rebel column on the move was soon located by aerial reconnaissance and the Air Force launched intensive attacks to deal with them. “Invaders” and “Thunderbolts” supported by C-47 transports pounded the insurgents while light observation aircraft tried to keep track of them. The rebels found it difficult to hide from the omnipresent "eyes in the sky" and as a result were frequently either bombed or under the threat of air attack. Yet despite this, as well as other hardships and difficulties, by 15 October "Che" and his men were installed in the Escambray Mountains. Meanwhile more rebel columns made their way to other parts of Cuba and with autumn coming the insurgency was affecting an ever increasing area.

By November the rebels had made substantial gains but had not yet attained their objectives with the FAEC being a major obstacle in the way or rather above it. In fact despite the American embargo the Air Force was improving its tactical skills introducing night time operations; the first night attack missions were flown 10 November against insurgents assaulting an Army detachment in Minas de Ocujal. More attack sorties were also flown in other areas as the developing military situation required. What could be described as a classic battle of the war was fought for the town Guisa. In an opening move on 20 November the insurgents surrounded a company of the Cuban Army numbering 133 men which was stationed there. A fierce battle erupted the next day as the soldiers - while cut off - had no intention of giving up, especially that reinforcements were swiftly dispatched. Before they got through B-26s arrived over the scene bombing and strafing intensively. The “Invaders” fully utilised the armament options available to them: .50 cal machine guns, 5 inch rockets as well as HE, fragmentation and napalm bombs were all used. Meanwhile the relief column had Pa-22 aircraft with door mounted machine guns "fly shotgun" overhead. They were very much needed for the rebels set up ambushes giving the gunners the opportunity to expand about a thousand rounds of .30 cal ammunition. For their part the insurgents were not gaping skywards in idleness but decided to test their shooting skills against flying targets. They claimed one aircraft shot down and there may be some substance to this, the victim being possibly a Pa-22. Apart from directly engaging in combat the FAEC provided useful support with its transport aircraft delivering ammunition as well as other supplies. The battle raged for ten days - the relief column reached Guisa only to be cut off itself thus forcing the Army to feed additional reinforcements including armour into the fight. At the same time the Air Force conducted numerous attack missions flown for the most part by “Invaders” and “Thunderbolts”. Finally government troops with air support managed to punch through a corridor to the beleaguered forces in Guisa but in view of rebel activity it become evident that the place could not be held. Under the circumstances it was decided to evacuate the garrison which amounted to nothing else but a victory for the insurgents.

While all these developments were taking place both sides kept working on their respective aviation capabilities. The FAEC was striving to remain a capable force in face of mounting problems. Maintaining US made aircraft was becoming more and more difficult because of the American embargo. In order to keep them operational various solutions were tried, for example breaks adapted from trucks were used in the B-26 (sic!). Another problem was ordnance expenditure caused by ongoing combat operations. In order to deal with the resulting shortage the Cubans started to manufacture munitions domestically. However lack of experience in this field brought a tragic result: Lt. Hector González Hernández was killed and his T-33 lost when a 250 lbs bomb manufactured in Cuba exploded while still under the aircraft's wing. Bombs detonating prematurely were a serious hazard but those which did not explode at all were also a problem. Dud bombs dropped by FAEC aircraft soon become a major source of explosives for the rebels. As demonstrated, makeshift aircraft repairs and amateurish bombs were not sufficient to meet the demand of an intensive aerial campaign. New aircraft were clearly needed and since the United States would not supply them [8] Batista turned to Great Britain. Because at that time surplus Sea Furies were readily available, aircraft of this type were bought for the FAEC. Apart from directly participating in combat and providing combat related support the Air Force also played an important role in keeping the country's military supplied with armament. The American embargo presented a serious problem yet Batista was able to buy arms from the Dominican Republic as well as Nicaragua thanks to "old friends" Trujillo and Somoza who would not let down a fellow dictator, especially that money could be made in the process. FAEC transport aircraft flew many sorties to bring the said military supplies from their place of purchase to Cuba. [9]

A FAR "Sea Fury" on display in 1959. Since Batista was unable to obtain combat aircraft from the USA due to the embargo he turned to Britain for that purpouse. The "Sea Furies" arrived too late to be of any real use to the FAEC but provided the FAR with a credible combat capability (as clearly demonstrated at the Bay of Pigs) until the arrival of the MiGs. Note the underwing rockets which are shown to good advantage, drop tanks resting aginst the landing gear can also be seen. A sea Fury serial 542 still exists in Havana. (Albert Grandolini collection)

FAEC transports. Without the ability offered by such aircraft to move men and supplies around Cuba as well as bring much needed war material from abroad, the governemt's forces would have been defeated by Castro's insurgents much earlier. (Albert Grandolini collection)

At the same time the rebels were trying to build up the FAR. In their search for aircraft which could be bought abroad and then flown to Cuba they came across several surplus military ones. Rebel operatives in the United States managed to purchase a single T-28 "Trojan" and two P-51 "Mustangs", but the latter duo did not reach operational status till the end of hostilities. The insurgents also tried to build aircraft on their own starting with a helicopter. However despite their best efforts the project proved too difficult technically to complete. Another source of aircraft were hijackings. The rebels hijacked three aircraft: on 22 October a DC 3 (CU-T266), on 5 November another DC 3 (CU-T8) and a Super 260 on 25 November. All the aircraft were flown to Mayarí Arriba and than camouflaged next to the runway. [10] Both DC 3s were destroyed on 12 November. A sharp eyed and inquisitive B-26 pilot spotted knolls of vegetations next to the runway that seemed to be out of place. On his request another B-26 was sent in and strafed the "vegetation". As a result both DC 3s caught fire and were consumed by flames. With FAEC's attention now attracted Mayarí Arriba was subjected to additional aerial attacks by the end of the month (more on this below). In addition the rebels also managed to capture a single FAEC aircraft on 10 November. More precisely it fell into their hands for the aircraft in question - an OS2U-3 "Kingfisher" flown by Lt. A. E. Bascaró Sánchez - developed engine problems and was forced to land in rebel controlled territory. [11]

A neat line up of FAR's T 28 "Trojans". They were inherited from the FAEC's military aviation school (Escuela Aviacion Militar). Known serials include 150, 151, 152 and 153. In addition Castro's rebels also managed to obtain a single "Trojan". At least one T-28 survives untill today on display in Havana. (Albert Grandolini collection)

In the time period 21 - 23 November the FAEC paid several "visits" to Mayarí Arriba. The location became an attractive target after aircraft hijacked by the rebels were discovered at the local airfield (see above). Thinking that the Army might even air land troops there the insurgents blocked the runway placing obstacles across it. Additionally the rebel "Kingfisher" which was awaiting engine repairs came to use as an anti aircraft emplacement. Namely its gun was fired at the attacking aircraft from the rear gunner's position. The fire was not just a gesture of defiance for it damaged an "Invader" on 22 November and a "Thunderbolt" a day later. Soon the air war would become less one sided as government troops found themselves at the receiving end of aerial bombardment. On 7 December the FAR conducted its first true combat mission. In what become known as Operation "A-001" the "Kingfisher" crewed by Silva Tablada and Leonel Paján (pilot and gunner respectively) bombed La Maya where a 200 men strong garrison was successfully resisting the insurgents. Despite just two bombs being dropped the desired effect was achieved and the troops surrendered. Three more attack mission were flown by the "Kingfisher" escorted by the "Trojan" - the latter with Jorge Triana at the controls. All targeted Sagua de Tánamo and resulted in that town's garrison laying down its arms on 20 December. Yet FAR's actions, though they had some tactical significance, were for the most part of symbolic value. To put them into perspective it is sufficient to say that just in the time period 16 - 24 December the FAEC flew 70 combat missions over Oriente province alone.

The battle of Santa Clara

However all this was of secondary importance for the real showdown came with the battle for Santa Clara. The city was located in the centre of Cuba and its capture would allow the insurgents to block movements form the west to the east and vice versa thus de facto cutting the island in two. In mid December the rebels went on the offensive taking the towns Fomento, Remedios, Caibarien, Cienfuegos and Yaguajay. Only at the latter locations serious resistance was encountered. By the end of the month rebel forces converging from all directions attacked Santa Clara. Trying to influence the battle's outcome in the Army's favour the FAEC send in "Thunderbolts", "Invaders" and for the first time "Sea Furies". Yet the aerial attacks, while not making it easier for the insurgents, were too little too late and failed to reverse the fortunes of war. The fight for the city, characterised by several dramatic episodes, ended with a rebel victory on 31 December. The government forces' defeat and the resulting capture of Santa Clara by the rebels was the turning point in the war as subsequent events showed.

News of rebel advances were received with gloom by Batista and his cronies, the so called "Batistanos". In addition the United States, via its ambassador in Cuba, was putting pressure on the dictator to step down. The prospect of having to leave the country was now a realistic possibility for Batista. In order not to be surprised by sudden developments the dictator made arrangements for a speedy escape using aircraft. The proverbial straw that broke the camel's back was the capture of Santa Clara. Batista received this information while celebrating New Year and without finishing the party decided to flee Cuba. At 2:10 A.M. the dictator boarded a DC-4 and was followed by his family as well as top "Batistanos" in four other aircraft. Once safely off the ground Batista ordered Col. Antonio Soto Rodríguez who was at the aircraft's controls to fly to the Dominican Republic. Then the aerial quintet split with two aircraft following that of Batista while the remaining set course for Florida. The trio with the dictator on board landed at San Isidor, Dominican Republic and was clearly expected, for Gen. Ramfis (Trujillo's son) was there to receive the Cuban "guests". In contrast those which landed in Jacksonville, United States were a surprise to everybody. Here the story ends - at least its first part - for Cuba would be the centre of much more aerial and military activity in the years to follow.

Before closing a few brief remarks to summarise the air war over Cuba deserve to be made. The FAEC fought under difficult circumstances yet made a significant contribution to the fighting. Its World War II vintage propeller driven aircraft were arguably better suited for COIN tasks than fast jets which were at that time the cutting edge of military aviation. On more than one occasion the Cuban Air Force gave much needed tactical support to the Army, in addition the logistic support it provided was also of importance. Having said this the obvious question arises - if the FAEC was so good than why did the government military effort fail? Saying that it performed well does not mean it was perfect. On several occasions the Air Force did not properly coordinate its actions with the Army which, combined with difficult terrain, meant that the results achieved sometimes left much to be desired. Also it should be kept in mind that the FAEC was faced with an uphill struggle against technical difficulties, lack of spares, ordnance shortages and the like. The defeat also had much to do with the overall situation including the generally low morale of the Cuban military especially the rank and file infantrymen who carried the main burden of fighting the war. However the main reason is, that a corrupt and unpopular dictator such as Batista could not survive a serious challenge in the long run. When such a challenge in the form of a lasting insurgency appeared it was only a matter of time before he was unseated and the FAEC could only delay it.

A T-28 "Trojan" makes a flying tribute for the aniversary from 1960 of the attack against the Moncada Barracks in Santiago on 26 July 1953 as the fuselage inscription clearly shows. (Albert Grandolini collection)

A FAR Sikorsky H-19 (S-55) helicopter hovering over one of those popular rallies the Cuban post-revolution authorities like to organise so much. (Albert Grandolini collection)


[1] Least it be forgotten the barracks in Bayamo were also assaulted the same day.

[2] Capt. Gastón Bernal who was one of the pilots involved in the search even claimed to have strafed her but there is little evidence to substantiate this claim.

[3] The end of material support did not mean a complete end of all military assistance, for US personnel involved with FAEC training would stay on.

[4] A simple change of codes and frequencies could not remedy the problem for the insurgents would capture even more communications equipment in the near future. By early August when the big government offensive came to an end no less but 14 Army radio sets had fallen into rebel hands.

[5] FAR originally stood for Fuerza Aérea Rebelde (Rebel Air Force) which was later changed to Fuerza Aérea Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Air Force) - the latter remains the official title of Cuba's air arm till present day.

[6] One of the US servicemen held was even allowed to retain his sidearm (sic!) and once released some former captives spoke in superlatives of Castro and his rebels.

[7] It is even now difficult to say why exactly the regime agreed to negotiate. Several reasons are given but all are a matter of conjectures rather than based on "hard" evidence. To start with the Cuban Army overestimated the number of Castro's rebels judging his force to number 1 000 and perhaps as many as 2 000 men in addition fighting so far has shown that the insurgents are a dangerous enemy and liquidating them might turn out to be very costly. Finally Batista might have been under increasing US pressure to stop military action but this is purely speculative.

[8] As a matter of fact the US impounded ten T-28 "Trojan" purchased for the FAEC.

[9] In addition a large number of weapons were bought in Italy. These were then flown to Cuba via Columbia by the "Flying Tigers" an aviation company run by former AVG members as can be easily deduced.

[10] All hijacked aircraft were Cuban and their passengers were treated well and soon released. The sole casualties was the Super-260 pilot Mario Díaz who was murdered by the rebels.

[11] In order to confuse the Cuban military the insurgents claimed that it was "intercepted" thus hinting that the rebels had operational fighter aircraft which was not the case.

Last Updated ( Feb 02, 2012 at 03:07 PM )
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