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Clandestine US Operations: Cuba, 1961, Bay of Pigs PDF Print E-mail
Contributed by Tom Cooper   
Aug 26, 2007 at 09:05 AM
Short overview of air combats caused by the US clandestine operations against Cuba, in April 1961.

Basically, there were three kinds of US clandestine and covert operations:
- CIA operations, which were essentially para-military in nature, and usually used some kind of a front (about which usually not really much is known until today);
- covert USAF operations, flown by aircraft with or without US- markings (meanwhile most of such operations were well covered in different publications)
- private enterprises, most of which worked on a smuggling for profit efforts (the history of most such operations remains to be published).

Their relatively small volume characterized the usual para-military operations organized by the CIA, with a small number of aircraft involved (except in SEA) mainly used for air-to-ground tasks. Types used foremost during the 1950s and 1960s were Douglas B-26 Invader and North American P-51 Mustang, which were available in abundance after the end of the WWII, and large number of which were now in storage, from where they could be removed without much attention from the public. If any kind of aerial opposition was expected, everything possible - sometimes short of engaging official US military forces - was tried in order to neutralize it early during the operation by a concentrated counter-air operation. Despite this, several times US aircraft involved in clandestine operations were engaged in air-to-air combats by local air forces, and here are the backgrounds behind such cases.

On 31 December 1959 the Cuban dictator Batista was forced to flee the country as the rebels lead by Fidel Castro occupied Havana after almost four years of civil war. The USA were one of the first countries which recognized the new government in Cuba, but in the following months a rift developed in reaction to the lynch-justice of the new government, which also nationalized all the US-owned capital on the island. As the tensions rose, Washington put Cuba under economic sanctions, and Castro then turned to the Soviet Union for help, thus causing a stand-off which very much lasts until today.

Initially, the CIA – at the time a secret service which was very active organizing different subversive activities against plethora of governments around the world – planned not to leave Castro as long in power: in the case of Cuba, already in September 1960 the organization and planning of the Operation called "Pluto" were initiated.

The Operation Pluto was organized within a remarkably short period of time, between September 1960 and March 1961, and mainly based on the fact that after the fall of Batista thousands of Cubans have left the country and settled in the USA. Many of these could be recruited for taking part in the counter-invasion which was to start an uprising against the new – increasingly communist – regime under Castro. The original plans for "Pluto" saw landings of small parties, which would fight a guerrilla war and undertake subversive operations, but the response from the Cuban exiles was such, that it soon become clear, that a much larger operation – a true invasion, which would also need support from the air – could be organized.

In total, the Operation Pluto was actually well prepared – even if the intelligence was poor – and had fairly serious chances for a success if executed in aggressive manner with proper support from the air. It was based on three aspects:
- successful recruitment of enough Cuban exiles,
- successful organization of resources - including B-26s
- training of the needed invasion- and support-forces in at least two countries (Guatemala and Nicaragua).

In August 1960, the CIA established the "Camp Trax" near Retalhuleu, in Guatemala, which has got an own airfield Simultaneously, in Miami, a number of Cuban exiles were gathered in order to be trained as pilots and technical personnel at the Homestead AB, and Opa Locka. Meanwhile, no less but 1.400 Cubans were recruited, and most of them were organized into the "Brigade 2506", which was to become the main fighting force.

In order to better conceal the preparations for the invasion, the CIA organized a series of front companies, and ever since, a pretty good overview of these became available. The first group of exiled Cubans destined for being trained as pilots were gathered at Opa-Locka, a disused Marine air base near Miami. Despite a large number of trained Cuban personnel, some US citizens were needed to train them and maintain aircraft. Both the US and Cuban flying and technical personnel were recruited via the "Double-Check Corporation", with the help of Gen. Doster, the then commander of the Alabama National Guard. Doster gathered some 80 Americans, between them many experts for the B-26s from the 117th TRW, USAF, and at least 60 Cubans. Via the company Intermountain Aviation a total of 26 B-26Cs were purchased. Of these, 20 were considered as usefull and made fully operational. Other companies supporting the Operation Pluto were the "Civil Air Transport" (CAT), a company founded by former General Chennault already in 1946 (foremost for operations in China). CAT was regularly purchased by the CIA, and turned into "Pacific Corporation" Holding, which included the new main company, "Southern Air Transport" (SAT) and operated also two smaller companies, the "Air America", and "Air Asia".

In order to better conceal the size of the Operation Pluto, the Invaders and their crews were officially controlled by the "Carribean Marine Aero Corporation", which was also paying the Cuban crews. The training of the crews was officially undertaken by the "Zenith Technical Enterprises Inc.", while all the transport aircraft were operated by the CAT and its subsidiaries. The small arms were purchased via the – in Carribic very well known – Interarms company, owned by the well known arms dealer Sam Cummings. By November 1960, the training of the exiled Cuban crews was so far that they were moved from Fort Lauderdale and Opa-Locka to Retalhuleu, in Guatemala, to get additional training on B-26s, C-46s, and C-54s. The more experienced Cuban pilots have already started to fly their first missions over Cuba, transporting dissidents, saboteurs, arms, and ammunition. Despte many problems with poorly marked drop-zones and poor communications, by March 1961 no less but 68 such missions were flown over Cuba.

Despite the purchase of many aircraft, it was obvious that all the men and heavy weapons could never be delivered to Cuba by transport aircraft only. Therefore, five merchant ships, each 5.000dwt, were chartered from "Garcia Line", in Nicaragua. Via the "Minearal Carriers Ltd." the CIA also purchased two LCI landing crafts, and a 110m long landing ship USS San Marcos, which was actually taken out of the USN reserve. Some slight postponements were caused due to the need to use some of the Cuban crews and transport aircraft for putting down some unrests in Guatemala.

Although at least two B-26Cs were damaged in training and one crashed, and an AT-11 was shot down over Cuba on 11 March 1961 (the crew was recovered by a destroyer of the USN), by the time the Operation Pluto was initiated, there were still up to 16 Invaders at hand. All the Invaders prepared for the operation were equipped with drop tanks taken from USAF F-84s, giving them an increased endurance. It was planned, namely, that these aircraft would be used to destroy the FAR during the early hours of the invasion, so to establish the air superiority over the bridgehead and a better part of Cuba. As already mentioned, in order to conceal the actual origins of these planes, all were painted in fake FAR-markings, getting the FAR national markings on the fin and serials on the nose. In fact, these markings were only superficially similar to those indeed used by the "original" Cuban aircraft: the FAR B-26Cs, for example, had not only a glazed nose, but were also painted in olive drab overall, while the B-26Bs of the exiles had noses with eight machineguns and were left aluminum overall.

During the training of Cuban B-26-crews in Nicaragua, several aircraft have got a sort of a "nose-art". The "VI-RA-TE" was the "personal mount" of Capt. Raúl Vianello, and the name was a combination of the first two letters of his wife, son, and daughter. (all artworks by Tom Cooper)

The Fuerza Aerea Revolutionaria (Cuban Air Force)
Before the success of the revolution, in 1959, the original Fuerza Aérea del Ejército de Cuba was a small service, mainly equipped with obsolete and surplus types supplied according to US MDAP-projects, and barely operational due to the unrests within its own ranks. By 1959, it boasted at least nine (out of 12 originally delivered) B-26C Invader bombers, 12 Sea Fury FB.1s and two F-47D Thunderbolt fighters, four (out of eight) T-33A training jets, as well as one OS2U-3 Kingfisher, one C-46 and three (out of four still intact) C-47 transports, and one Beech C-45. That was also the number of aircraft the newly established Fuerza Aérea Revolutionaria – the Revolutionary Air Force (FAR) – took over at the moment of ist establishment, in early 1960. Only few of these aircraft were actually airworthy, but the FAR was swift to call to service a number of former FAEC transport and also civilian airline pilots. Due to immense efforts of all involved, by late 1960 the new Cuban air force was actually in a pretty good shape – considering the circumstances. For example, the single Escuadron de Bombardeo, commanded by Luis Silva-Tablada (a former FAEC pilot, and comrade of quite a few of counter-revolutionary pilots which were to fly missions of the operation Pluto) prepared six out of nine available B-26 airframes for operations. In fact, usually only between one and three Invaders could be considered airworthy (five of these were stationed at Antonio de los Banos airfield, south of Havana, and the main FAR air base, and one was usually held at Santiago de Cuba – where also all the grounded examples were parked), but the FAR thus possessed a valuable light-bomber asset. The situation in other Cuban units was similar. In total the most important of FAR’s assets were the pilots and ground crews, which were highly enthusiastic and to prove far more capable and willing to fight than could be expected considering their training and experience, or general circumstances under which they had to work.

The situation on the other side was only slightly different, then the counter-revolutionaries were at least as enthusiastic about the operation in which they were to take part. There were certain predispositions for this enthusiasm, which were to influence it considerably later. Namely, the B-26s of the counter-revolutionaries were to operate over Cuba after starting from very distant bases - Retalhuleu in Guatemala (by then code-named “Rayo Base”), and Puerto Cabezas in Nicaragua (code-named “Happy Valley”). This would make for some round trips of up to 1400 mile and up to eight hours, mostly over the sea and with only very limited possibilities of search-and-rescue operations – which was the actual background behind the CIA going for two-engined B-26s instead for one-engined P-51Ds when planning and organizing the Operation Pluto. Certainly, this was not a reason for over-enthusiasm, but then even more problems developed. The original plan for the Operation Pluto saw the support of the Brigade 2506 not only by B-26s flown by counter-revolutionary pilots, but also by the US aircraft and ships of at least one USN carrier battle group. In January 1961, however, the new US administration of the President Kennedy took over in Washington. Despite his sympathies for the idea, on 3 March 1961, Kennedy issued an order which would not permit any direct involvement of US military, however. Even more so, he also forbade the planned large opening attack by counter-revolutionary B-26s against the Cuban air bases. These decisions were initially kept secret from the personnel of the Brigade 2506, and so also counter-revolutionary pilots. When they learned about them – shortly before the start of the invasion – quite a few were disappointed and frustrated.

The Puma Strike
On Saturday, 15 April 1961, around 02:30hrs, only eight out of at least 16 operational counter-revolutionary B-26Bs took off towards their assigned targets. The plan – called the Operation Puma – now saw limited attacks against the FAR air bases, which would then be explained as caused by a defecting crew of the FAR. This story was to be supported by another counter-revolutionary B-26 – of course, in full FAR-markings – landing in Miami, where its crew would explain that they defected after fleeing from Cuba.

The eight bombers were organized into three sections:
- Puma Flight, with Jose Crespo and navigator Lorenzo Pérez-Lorenzo as "Puma 1"; Daniel Fernández-Mon and navigator Gaston Pérez as "Puma 2"; and Osvaldo Piedra with navigator José Fernández as "Puma 3". Their target was the airfield Campo/Ciudad Libertad (the counter-revolutionary crews called it "Camp Libertad"; the Cubans "Ciudad Libertad).

- Gorilla Flight, consisting of "Gorilla 1" (B-26B "FAR 931"), flown by Capt. Gustavo Ponzoa with navigator Capt. Rafael Garcial Pujol, and "Gorilla 2" ("FAR 933"), flown by Capt. Gonzalo Herrera, with navigator Angel Lopez. Their target was the Antonio Maceo International Airport, Santiago de Cuba.

- Linda Flight including "Linda 1" ("FAR 929") flown by Luis Cosme, with navigator Nildo Batista; "Linda 2" with René Garcia, with navigator Luis Ardois; and "Linda 3", with Alfredo Caballero, with navigator Alfredo Maza. Their target was San Antonio de los Banos air base.

"FAR-917" (probably ex USAF 44-34429) was the last operational B-26C with the Cuban Air Force. Flown by the Chilean instructor Legas, the aircraft was underway for its last sortie on 18 April, when hit by ground fire: Legas was forced to make an emergency landing with four 250kg bombs still aboard!

Each aircraft was armed with two 250kg and ten 125kg bombs, as well as with eight machineguns, mounted in the nose.

As first over their target, Santiago de Cuba, arrived the Invaders of the Gorilla Flight. They were probably spotted by a patrol boat of the Cuban Navy while approaching at medium level, but then dived to only 10 or 20 feet above the sea and continued towards the target. Once over Santiago de Cuba, Ponzoa bombed the ramp under which fuel depots were buried, while Herrera straffed AAA-emplacements. After the first turn, the planes exchanged their places and Herrera bombed, while Ponzoa tried to give him some cover. The Cubans responded with fierce fire, filling the skies with tracer caliber 23 adn 37mm, but the two Invaders then turned around positioning for their third attack. While dropping his last bombs, Capt. Gonzoa noticed one Cubana Airlines DC-3/C-47 (CU-T172) and a Cuban Navy PBY already burning, and then turned for another strafing run, during which Herrera hit several parked aircraft and also the building nearby. Despite the meanwhile fully alerted defenses and the fierce AAA fire, Capts. Ponzoa and Herrera positioned for yet another attack, during which Ponzoa hit an all-black painted FAR B-26C, causing it to burst in flames. Only then have they turned away: Herrera’s plane was hit several times, causing his nose gear door to hang half open. Nevertheless, the pair landed safely at Happy Valley almost seven hours after the take-off, claiming to have destroyed the fuel depot and virtually every military and civilian aircraft they found parked on the ground (for a total of three or four B-26Cs – all of which were probably not airworthy – one C-47, and one FB.1 Fury of the FAR, and the single DC-3 of the Cubana Airlines).

As next over their target, Camp/Ciudad Libertad, the Puma Section was less successful and lucky. Some sources claimed that the Puma Section damaged "only one T-33A", but in fact there were no FAR aircraft at this airfield, as it was not used already since months. Therefore, this strike was a complete waste of time and resources. Even more so, the B-26B "Puma 3" was shot down by AAA, and crashed off the north coast of Havanna, with the loss of the crew. The second Invader from this pair, the "Puma 1", was also damaged, and diverted to the NAS Boca Chica, near Key West, instead of flying back to Nicaragua.

Finally, the third pair, Linda attacked San Antonio de los Banos, and claimed the destruction of one each of T-33A ("715"), C-47, and AT-6, and another Cubana DC-3. The was damaged by AAA and diverted to Grand Cayman.

With this, the opening attack was over, and the CIA now initiated the "public" part of the campaign. At 0400hrs, Mario Zuniga, a pilot of the Brigade 2506, took off in the second B-26B "FAR 933" for Miami, where he landed at 0821hrs, explaining to have defected from Cuba after destroying several FAR aircraft on the ground. Only very few observers noticed that the aircraft was a B-26B, with "hard" nose that contained eight machine guns, while the FAR was flying B-26Cs, equipped with a "glazed" nose and carrying machine guns in the wings. Also, initially nobody asked any questions about the fact that the guns of the aircraft were obviously not fired: for the time being, the deception functioned.

"FAR933" - actually the B-26B of the "Liberation Air Force", flown to Miami in deception campaign at the beginning of the assault on Cuba. The CIA did a reasonably good job in replicating FAR markings, however, the genuine FAR Invaders were B-26Cs - with glazed nose and machine-gun turrets.

Invaders in Air Combat
Meanwhile, an USAF U-2 returned to USA with the post-strike pictures of the Puma attack, which showed that only five FAR aircraft could be confirmed as destroyed on the ground, while few others were hit, but considered as damaged. With this, it became clear already at that moment, that the landing of the Brigade 2506 would not be undertaken under conditions of a complete air superiority: actually, it would lack also proper air support. Because of this, the CIA and the exiled Cubans demanded permission to fly additional strikes. President Kennedy turned any such requests down, explaining that meanwhile it became clear that the B-26 that landed in Miami could not start from Cuba. The Invaders of the counter-revolutionaries were to fly again only after some of the Cuban airfields were captured.
Obviously, the poor intelligence on the actual condition and capabilities of the FAR have left the counter-revolutionaries and the CIA under impression, that the invasion could be continued as planned nevertheless, and therefore a decision was brought to do so, even if all the air strikes planned for the 16 April were cancelled. This was a fatal mistake: the FAR was not destroyed, and now it has also got almost 48 hours to mobilize and prepare for the fighting.

Shortly after the midnight of 17 April, the first parts of the Brigade 2506 landed from the merchant Barbara J. on the "Blue" beach, near Giron, which had also a small landing strip. Shortly after, the second part of the Brigade landed from Blagar on the Beach Red, near Playa Large, in the Bay of Pigs. The first two ships were followed by the USS San Marco and seven landing crafts, which delivered five M-41 tanks to Playa Larga. Initial Cuban resistance was weak, and the Brigade 2506 had no problems in establishing a several kilometers deep bridgehead.

Nevertheless, Castro was swift to respond and the first stronger units of the Cuban Army started moving at the dawn. The FAR was also swift to send some of its fighters and light bombers into the area and these appeared just in the moment as the five C-46s and a single C-54 delivered 177 paras of the Brigade 2506 some seven kilometers behind the Playa Larga, in order to reinforce the bridgehead (the drop was codenamed Operation Falcon). As the transports turned around a single FAR B-26C – initially misidentified as one of the counter-revolutionary aircraft – appeared near one of the C-46s, but when it opened fire, the pilot of the C-46, Capt. Eddie Ferrer, turned his transport into the Invader, passing nearly head-on and then moving towards the support ships which were armed with anti-aircraft guns and could thus offer some support. The lonely FAR B-26 then left the area, its crew later claiming to have shot one C-46 down.

Meanwhile, around 0645hrs, the FAR Sea Fury "541", flown by Maj. Enrique Carrera-Rolas, appeared over Playa Larga and found the next merchant, Houston, which was in the process of off-loading supplies. Carreras immediately attacked and caused a considerable surprise delivering a salvo of unguided rockets very precisely: Houston was heavily hit and cached fire. It was soon clear that the ship could not be recovered, but the FAR pilots knew that more efforts were needed in order to have some effects. Consequently, three hours later several FAR Sea Furies appeared on the scene and attacked Rio Escondido – which carried most of the ammunition for the Brigade 2506 - near Giron, hitting it with several rocket-salvos and gun-fire, and causing a powerful explosion. The attack of the Furies against Rio Escondido was witnessed by the crews of the two counter-revolutionary B-26Bs – belonging to the "Chico" section – which now appeared on the scene. Invader "FAR 935", flown by Capt. Matías Farías (as "Chico 2"), with Eddie Gonzalez as navigator, turned immediately behind the nearest Sea Fury and took a snap-shot while the two aircraft were mid through a turn towards each other. Then two more Furies appeared, one to the right, and another to the left of the Invader, but they "identified" the aircraft as "their". One of the two FAR fighters is believed to have been flown by Maj. Enrique Carrera-Rolas, which then turned away and towards Veradero. Capt. Farías started a pursuit and catched with the much faster Sea Fury only when Carrera-Rolas was in the landing pattern: Farías attacked and scored some hits, but the fighter retracted the gear and accelerated away. Disturbed by the communist AAA, Farías then turned away towards the Bay of Pigs, where he briefly exchanged fire with an "original" B-26 Invader, the "FAR 903", flown by Capt. Silva-Tablada. Silva-Tablada and his crew (including Mation Torres, Jesus Noa, and Gonzalez Garrinaga) were underway towards the Bay of Pigs, and they arrived there exactly in the moment as the landing crafts returned to merchants in order to take the next wave of troops, as well as ammunition and supplies. By now, the gunners aboard the ships were alerted and ready, and as the Invader approached it meet fierce opposition. The plane was hit by the AAA, lost a wing, and cart wheeled into the water.

Returning over the bridgehead around 0700hrs, Capt. Farías was then to witness three hours of intensive combat. While the other B-26B from this pair returned back to Nicaragua, he remained on station as requested by the commanders on the ground. As first, he supported the landings at Playa Larga, and straffed the communist column underway from Cienfuegos, before supporting the paratroopers of the Brigade 2506 involved in fighting between Soplillar and Yaguaramas. By 0900hrs, it was clear Farías would not have enough fuel to return to Happy Valley, but would rather have to divert to Grand Cayman or Jamaica. After conferencing with the local commander, however, he decided to land on the small strip which was already under the control of the Brigade 2506. Just in the moment when this decision was taken, another FAR Sea Fury attacked him, but apparently missed. Turning towards the strip, Farías then noticed smoke and that the plane was damaged: what exactly caused the problems remained unknown (after all, by the time Farías was over the area for almost four hours and participated in several engagements), but while almost over the small airfield Playa Giron, his Invader was then attacked also by the FAR T-33As flown by Lt. Alberto Fernandez and heavily damaged, while his navigator was killed. Pulling up, Farías tried to shot at Fernandez which overshoot, but then his starboard engine quit and he had to crash-land. Badly injured during the landing, Farías was evacuated to Nicaragua two days later.

The Catastrophe in the Bay of Pigs
Shortly before Farías B-26 went down, around 1000hrs four other Invaders of the counter-revolutionaries appeared on the scene. Two of them attacked a Cuban column near Pálpite, causing a heavy loss, but then more FAR fighters arrived on the scene and moments later the Invader-crews were fighting for naked survival, as – despite their lack of experience – the FAR pilots flew their planes in an admirable manner.

Despite an intervention by several A4D-2 Skyhawks from the US carrier USS Essex (CVA-9), which tried to fly in between the FAR and counter-revolutionary aircraft, the T-33As and Sea Furies could not be stopped. The B-26 "Paloma 1", flown by Capt. Raúl Vianell, and navigator Demetrio Pérez, was shot down by the T-33A flown by FAR Capt. Alvaro Prendes. The B-26 "Lion 2", flown by Capt. Crispín García, and navigator Juan González, was shot down probably by the Sea Fury "541", flown by Maj. Enrique Carrera-Rolas. Then also the end for the rest of the „Puma“ flight came, as both B-26s belonging to this section came under attack: "Puma 1", flown by Capt. José Crespo with navigator Lorenzo Pérez-Lorenzo, was badly damaged by the Sea Fury piloted by Lt. Douglas Rudd. The Invader ditched in the sea near Nicaraguan coast, but the crew was killed. "Puma 2" had no better luck: it was shot down by T-33A "703", flown by Lt. Rafael del Pino, and the crew – Capt. Osvaldo Piedra and navigator José Fernández – was killed.

After these heavy losses most of the remaining counter-revolutionary pilots, demoralized and frustrated, refused to fly additional combat sorties into the Area. Equally, the USA were now sure that they would not support the invasion, especially as the expected uprising of the Cubans against Castro did not happen. Therefore, the situation of the troops on the beachhead in the Bay of Pigs detorriated rapidly. Only Eduardo ferrer, which already flew one of the C-46s that dropped the paras on the same morning, volunteered to now fly another transport into the combat area, in order to deliver supplies. His aircraft was escorted by two B-26Bs, but these turned back too early and have left Ferrer alone: soon after, he was intercepted by a single T-33 and forced to abort the mission.

Under such conditions, there was not other possibility but to send US instructors to fly combat sorties with B-26s over the Bay of Pigs on 18 April. This attack was successful in hitting the Cuban positions, and no aircraft were lost. In response, the FAR sent its last operational – out of two examples remaining intact – B-26C into the battle as well., flown by Chilean Jacques Lagas. But, while over flying the communist positions the aircraft was hit by the ground defenses and damaged, and then suffered also a mechanical failure. Lagas landed safely, but this was the last flight of any "original" Cuban B-26 Invaders.

Fake "FAR-931", the B-26B flown by Capts. Ponzoa and Pujol as "Gorilla 1" on the morning of 15 April 1961, during the strike against Puerto Cabezas.

On the same day also few aircraft from the USS Essex – with all their markings removed – were sent into reconnaissance of the area, as well as a single USAF C-130 Hercules transporter, which started from the Kelly AB, in Texas, which was to drop some supplies in the night. Due to different factors, the Hercules never reached Giron. Meanwhile, the situation of the Brigade 2506 on the ground became critical as well. The two last undamaged merchants, Atlantico and Carribe, have left the area without off-loading most of their loads, and the troops were now very short with ammunition.

For the morning of 19 April, one last large air attack was permitted to be flown by the Cuban counter-revolutionary pilots, which agreed to fly it, but only if covered by the Skyhawks from the USS Essex. After this request was turned down by Washington, however, again only the US advisors showed ready to take off. So it came that the US pilots William Goodwin, Thomas W. Ray, Riley Shamburger, and Joe Shannon, together with the Cuban pilot Gonzalo Herrera, manned the five B-26Bs readied for this mission. The bombers took of from Happy Valley at 0330hrs, and closing to the Cuban coast even saw four Skyhawks of the VA-34. But, the USN fighters were only on a reconnaissance flight and not to get involved: as soon as they spotted the arriving Invaders, they turned away. Namely, the USS Essex has got a secret order to dispatch several Skyhawks for the escort of counter-revolutionary bombers, but these missed to meet the B-26s due to communication problems. The US crews attacked nevertheless.

Thomas W. Ray, underway under the call-sign "Mad Dog 4" with navigator Leo Baker, bombed Castor’s HQ in the "Central Australia" sugar factory, but was then shot down by Maj. Enrique Carrera-Rolas, which piloted the T-33 "709". Ray and Baker bailed out safely, but were then executed by the communists. The other four bombers managed to hit their targets as well, but then another T-33A, "711", this time flown by Capt. Alvaro Prendes, cached the leading Invader of the "Mad Dog" formation, flown by Maj. Rilley Shamburger, with navigator Wade Gray, and shot it down.

For all purposes, the battle was now short of being over: on the ground, no less but 1.189 troops of the Brigade 2506 were meanwhile captured – or would be cached in the following few days - while 114 others were killed. The CIA dispatched another transport to drop supplies on the same evening, but the Operation Pluto was then cancelled. The remaining 50 Cuban pilots and technicians were then flown to Miami, and all the bases used for the operation closed. The Invaders left behind at Happy Valley languished for some time before being taken over by the Fuerza Aérea de Nicaragua; few examples were even flown back to the USA, and ended at Davis-Monthan.

For the FAR, its first combat campaign was a complete and undisputed success. According to official and inofficial Cuban sources the – in part young and mainly inexperienced – FAR pilots claimed a surprisingly high number of air-to-air kills against the counter-revolutionary aircraft. Even if under a closer look most of these proved as over-claims (some Cuban sources claim no less but 16 counter-revolutionary aircraft as shot down by FAR pilots), their achievements nevertheless deserve a full credit, especially as most of the FAR pilots had no combat experience at all, and the aircraft they flew would probably be declared non-operational in most other air forces. Their achievements are even more significant if the one considers, that the official Cuban sources claimed the ten available FAR pilots to have flown no less but 70 combat sorties, while the counter-revolutionary sources indicate everything else but a confirmation for even 50% of this claim to be truth. Consequently in a very small number of combat sorties the FAR delivered the decisive blows to the counter-revolutionaries, sinking two transport ships and shooting down seven B-26B Invaders (an eight example was shot down by the AAA), thus assuring their enemy not to be properly supplied with ammunition, and left without any air cover. For all purposes, the Fuerza Aérea Revolucionaria was thus instrumental in spoiling the Operation Pluto.

The most-successful FAR pilots were:

- Maj. Enrique Carrera-Rolas, for which two kills were claimed in only seven sorties flown, and which not only indeed shot down two B-26s, but also sunk one transport ship,

- Capt. Alvaro Prendes, for which three kills were claimed (two confirmed) in – supposedly – 14 combat sorties, and

- Lt. Rafael del Pino (which in the mid-1980s defected – flying his whole family in a small aircraft – to the USA, after also leading the Cuban contingent in the war in Angola), for which it was claimed to have shot down two B-26s (only one confirmed) in ten combat sorties,

The counter-revolutionary pilots fared at least as well. However, with their slower and less maneuverable Invaders they could simply not win the air combats against the faster Sea Furies and T-33As of the FAR. Left without the promised support from the USA, and after suffering heavy losses in repeated air combats, it was not surprising that they finally gave up in frustration. Their fate illustrated perfectly how heavily dependable on possession of air superiority the operations of this kind were.

For the CIA, the Operation Pluto became a classic synonym for a military disaster, which caused the agency to be comprehensively reorganized. The times when it was organizing clandestine para-military operations all over the world were largely over, and the CIA – subsequently put under the direct control of the US Senate – was subsequently reorganized into an intelligence-gathering organization. This remained that way right until the end of the 20th Century, and was changed only after severe criticism for ist inactivity in the face of increasing activity of Islamic extremists.

Orders of Battle
- Escuadron Persecucion y Combate: 4 Sea Fury FB.11s (three operational), 5 T-33As (possibly also few P-51Ds, but none were flyable) at Camp Libertad, and San Antonio de Los Banos

- Escuadron de Bombarderos Ligeros (CO Luis Silva-Tablada; XO Jacques Lagas – a former Chilean, trained on B-26s in the USA and contracted to train Cuban pilots): 5 B-26Cs at San Antonio de los Banos, 1 at Santiago de Cuba (plust several grounded examples)

- Escuadron de Transporte: few C-46s and C-47s at Camp (or "Ciudad") Libertad, Santiago de Cuba, and Cienfuegos

- Entrenamiento (training group), used also for liaison, flew reportedly few TBM Avengers, but also several Cessna, Beechcraft, and Piper aircraft; there was also a small helicopter arm, equipped with a small number of Bell 47s, as well as with the first Mi-1s, and Mi-4s.

US Navy (USN)
USS Essex, CVS-9, with carrier air wing CVSG-60 embarked (code AW), including:
- VA-34 Blue Blasters, A4D-2 Skyhawk
- VS-34 (name of the unit unknown), S2F Tracker
- VAW-12 (Det.), AD-5W Tracker
- HS-9 Sea Griffins, HSS-1

Note: at the open-air display in the DAAFAR Museum, near Havana, a B-26B can be found, carrying the serial "933". This plane certainly never flew with the FAR, but is believed to be an ex-Portuguese example, brought from Angola as a war prize.

Sources & Bibliography

- "AIR WARS AND AIRCRAFT; A Detailed Record of Air Combat, 1945 to the Present", by Victor Flintham, Arms and Armour Press, 1989 (ISBN: 0-85368-779-X)

- "Profile Publications" series, Profile Publications Ltd., Leatherhead, Surrey, from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

- Ian Allan "At War", "Postwar Military Aircraft", and "Modern Combat Aircraft" series

- THE ARMS BAZAAR, by Anthony Sampson, Hodder and Stoughton, 1977 (ISBN: 3-498-06118-6)

- "LATIN-AMERICAN MILITARY AVIATION, by J.M. Andrade, Midland Counties Publications, 1982


- ENCYCLOPEAEDIA OF THE WORLD'S AIR FORCES, by Michael J.H. Taylor, Multimedia Books Ltd., 1988 (ISBN: 1-85260-135-3)

- THE PENGUIN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF MODERN WARFARE, by Kenneth Macksey & William Woodhouse, Penguin Group, 1991 (ISBN: 0-670-82698-7)

- WORLD'S AIR FORCES, by John Pacco, JP Publications, 1992 (ISBN: 90-801136-1-1)

- FOREIGN INVADERS; The Douglas Invader in Foreign Military and US Clandestine Service, by D. Hagedorn & L. Hellström, Midland Publishing Ltd., 1994 (ISBN: 1-85780-013-3)

- AEROSPACE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORLD AIR FORCES, edited by David Willis, Aerospace Publishing, 1999 (ISBN: 1-86184-045-4)

Further Recommended Reading

- Bay of Pigs; the Men and Aircraft of the Cuban Revolutionary Air Force" by Doug MacPhail and Chuck Acree, posted at the website of the Latin American Aviation Heritage Society

"Secret Warriors; the CIA's Liberation Air Force in 1954 in Guatemala" by Mario E. Overall, another excellent article posted at the website of the Latin American Aviation Heritage Society, offering an exclusively detailed insight into the organization of the typical CIA para-military operations of the time
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