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OBITUARY

Spanish Civil War flying ace who “attacked like a rabid dog” dies aged 97

José Falcó reportedly took down two elite Nazi fighters in one mission in his Soviet biplane

For years the Republican pilot took flowers to the grave of one of the Germans he killed

José Falcó aboard his Chato biplane during the Spanish Civil War.
José Falcó aboard his Chato biplane during the Spanish Civil War.

José Falcó – whose Catalan surname means “falcon” – seemed predestined to become a bold aviator.

He reportedly took down two Messerschmitts Bf 109, the Luftwaffe’s state-of-the-art fighter planes during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), in a single sortie. He could fly and fight in the dark, going where only the most skilled and daring pilots ventured.

But he was also the man who, for years, took flowers to the grave of one of the German pilots he shot down.

Now, at the age of 97, it is old age that has finally caught up with Falcó, rather than the machine guns of an enemy aircraft.

Falcó, who died on Monday in the French city of Toulouse, where he lived, took part in what is considered to be the last air battle of the Spanish Civil War in Catalonia.

The eternal debate of whether he shot down one or two will never end”

It was on February 6, 1939. The Republican army was beating a hasty retreat following the Battle of the Ebro, and the surviving air force had regrouped at Villajuiga airfield in Girona before moving on to France. Franco’s air force had already conducted a raid the day before. Falcó did not have time to take off that day, but he fired against the attackers with a rifle and always claimed that he hit an Italian pilot.

But it was the next day that the big attack by the Messerschmitts took place. The Republican aircraft scrambled to take off as hell began raining down around them. One of the few to manage it was Falcó aboard his Polikarpov I-15 biplane, also known as a Chato. After zigzagging in and out of the German planes’ firing range, Falcó suddenly lunged at them “like a rabid dog,” according to the testimony of his own attackers, and managed to take one down. Then he reportedly shot down a second, although this claim has been contested.

His plane’s engine petered out just then, and Falcó was forced to make an emergency landing in a field. He managed to reach the French border by car, and was interned at the camp in Boulou, then transferred to Argelès-sur-Mer.

Falcó was born in Barcelona, on Robadors street, part of the former Barrio Chino (Chinese quarter). He always said he developed his passion for flying at school, where he learned about the adventures of Ramón Franco and his seaplane Plus Ultra – ironically it was Ramón’s brother Francisco Franco who Falcó would later end up fighting.

He attempted to join the French air force in World War II, but was turned down

In 1936 he was conscripted for service in Marina, but after the uprising he was admitted into the flying school in Alcantarilla, and graduated as a Polikarpov I-15 pilot. David Íñiguez, co-author of La guerra aèria a Catalunya (or, The aerial war in Catalonia), says Falcó is one of the few Republican fighter pilots to have trained exclusively in Spain.

In 1938, after many combat hours, he was selected for night missions against the Condor Legion’s air raids on Barcelona. Falcó had no prior experience with night flying and had to learn as he went along. His mechanic made some superficial changes to his Chato and the flying ace learned to take off and land in the dark, and to coordinate with the anti-aircraft gunners. He drew a bat on the fuselage to lift his own spirits. He spent many hours sitting inside his aircraft, a telephone cradled in his lap, waiting for alerts about incoming air raids. Following the death of Walter Katz, the German-Jewish head of the night fighter squadron, Falcó took over his duties but continued to participate in daytime missions.

In France he attempted to join the French air force during World War II, but was turned down. He then moved to Algeria, where he worked as a mechanic and got married. After obtaining French citizenship, he moved back to France and settled down in Toulouse.

One day, while visiting the old airfield of Villajuiga to relive his day of glory, Falcó ran into the memorial for one of the downed Messerschmitt pilots, Heinrich Windemuth, and never stopped bringing him flowers after that.

He was an affable man, very generous and welcoming”

“He was an affable man, very generous and welcoming,” recalls Íñiguez, who knew him well. A purebred pilot, he was proud of his deeds and was prone to some exaggeration, which does not detract from his track record. He worked actively with the association of republican aviators to bring dignity to this community and recognition for their role in the Civil War.

The French journalist Pierre Challier has written a biography of Falcó, and the Barcelona comic book festival Salón del Cómic, which begins on Thursday, will include a stand dedicated to Republican pilots and sell a t-shirt depicting Falcó and his biplane.

Falcó has been officially credited with taking down eight enemy planes during the course of 20 combat missions, and even though the Messerschmitts affair is still steeped in controversy, this is perhaps not the right time to take credit away from him.

“The eternal debate of whether he shot down one or two will never end,” says Íñiguez. “But it was very likely two, and very likely that the Germans never wanted to admit that a Chato was able to take out two of its best fighters.”