According to the President of the United State of America, Donald Trump, air power has been important to rebels since the the 1770s. In his 4th of July speech in 2019 he stated that the Continental Army fighting the British ‘took over the airports’ as part of their struggle for independence. Despite his grip on historical fact being roughly equivalent to his understanding of morality, Trump accidentally got two things right: air power of any kind is seldom available to revolutionaries and therefore neutralising the aviation assets of their oppressors is a very sensible idea.
Combat aircraft are generally expensive and require large, vulnerable bases from which to operate not to mention a prohibitive amount of spares and maintenance just to get off the ground. When one then considers the hefty training requirements for their crew both in the air and on the ground, it is hardly surprising that freedom fighters, insurgents, rebels or revolutionaries rarely make use of aircraft.
Here are some of the most interesting exceptions to the rule: the best flying freedom fighters from 1776 to the present.
10. Martinsyde Type A Mk.II ‘The Big Fella’, Irish Republican Army, 1921
Not really a ‘warplane’ as such, the first aircraft of the Irish Air Corps was, at least, a modified fighter. In 1921, Michael Collins (the Irish Revolutionary leader, not the Apollo XI astronaut) was due to attend talks in London to discuss Irish independence. Fearing that Collins and other members of the Irish delegation might be detained if the talks were to break down the IRA decided to obtain a fast aircraft to whisk delegates back to Ireland at the first sign of any trouble. The aircraft they chose was a derivative of the Martinsyde Buzzard, arguably the finest fighter of the First World War, and the fastest readily available British-built aircraft. Secretly purchased in September 1921, the Martinsyde Type A was equipped with two seats instead of military equipment and for the rest of the year it was kept at readiness at Croydon aerodrome. Thankfully (and somewhat surprisingly) the talks were successful, the Martinsyde was not required and power was devolved to the Irish Free State. On the other hand, the terms of the treaty directly led to the Irish Civil War of 1922-23 and resulted in the Irish Air Corps investing in several more aircraft of a more warlike nature. Meanwhile the Martinsyde was shipped to Dublin in 1922 and painted with the Irish flag of green, white and gold with the name ‘The Big Fella’ (Collins’s nickname) emblazoned on the nose. This was later changed to ‘City of Dublin’ and later still to ‘Cathair Atha Cliath’ (City of Dublin). Despite the obvious historical importance of this aircraft it was scrapped in 1937.
9. Mitsubishi Ki-51 ‘Guntei’, Indonesian Air Force, 1946-49
Only one example of the Japanese Ki-51 exists and we have the Indonesian independence movement to thank for it. After the end of hostilities in 1945, the Dutch East Indies were still occupied by thousands of armed Japanese troops. Two days after the Japanese general surrender, Indonesian republicans declared the country’s independence from the Netherlands, however the largely powerless Dutch Government-in-Exile based in Australia wished to regain their colonial state. Meanwhile, Louis Mountbatten, Allied High Commander South East Asia somewhat reluctantly agreed to use Allied and Japanese troops as caretaker forces until the Dutch return in 1947. During this period nationalist republican sentiment took hold across this enormous country and fighting broke out, from September 1945 and would continue unabated for four years,
Compared to most revolutionary groups the Indonesians were in an unusual position, the country was littered with the still-functional military equipment of a defeated occupying power. Not only that but trained Japanese personnel were in many cases sympathetic to Indonesia’s desire for independence and actively assisted the revolutionaries’ efforts. About 1000 stayed behind after the general repatriation of Japanese forces to support the republicans.
The bulk of the fighting took place on the ground but in July 1947 the Dutch initiated a large air assault intended to destroy all potentially hostile aircraft on the ground. Rebel forces had managed to hide a handful of Japanese aircraft and on the 29th of July, the first operation of the Indonesian Air Force took place. Two Yokosuka K5Y1s trainer biplanes (known as ‘Cureng’* to the Indonesians) joined the rebel’s premium offensive air asset, a Mitsubishi Ki-51 light bomber known as ‘Guntei’*. They were supposed to have been escorted by a Nakajima Ki-43 fighter but unfortunately it developed engine trouble and could not be repaired in time. Resplendent in their new Indonesian markings (created by simply painting the lower half of the Japanese hinomaru white) the three aircraft dropped incendiaries on the Dutch Army barracks in Semarang, Salatiga and Ambarawa. Material damage was minimal but the psychological damage was enormous as the Dutch, with predictable hubris, had previously declared the total destruction of the Indonesian Air Force. This failure was compounded by the fact that Dutch P-40s, charged with finding and destroying the raiders were unable to locate them. In December 1949 the Dutch, under pressure from the international community, particularly the USA recognised Indonesian independence. Today, the unique Ki-51 and extremely rare K5Y1 and Ki-43 aircraft that helped to make Indonesian independence a reality may be seen at the Dirgantara Mandala Museum.
*Despite frequent references to these names in a variety of sources, I have been unable to find any kind of translation from Indonesian. If you know, please inform us in the comments.
8. Hawker Hurricane Mk IV, Balkan Air Force, 1944-45
In 1941 conventional Yugoslavian resistance to the Nazi juggernaut collapsed after a mere two weeks. There followed some four years of brutal partisan fighting in which Yugoslav forces twice came close to being wiped out but eventually emerged triumphant. What makes the Yugoslav experience unusual is its possession of an effective air force that achieved air superiority over the Luftwaffe and Croatian air force during 1944. Of course, the insurgent Yugoslavs could not have achieved this alone and for the first two years of the occupation Axis aircraft operated more or less unopposed on anti-partisan operations. However, after the Allies gained possession of Southern Italy the situation changed markedly. Previously limited to long range bombing missions, Allied tactical aircraft were now within striking distance of the Balkan nations. Initial operations were coordinated as part of the Italian campaign and as such sorties over the Balkans were essentially a diversion from the main thrust into Northern Italy but in June 1944 a different phase began with the creation of the Balkan Air Force, an organisation specifically intended to operate in support of the partisans.
The Balkan Air Force was a cosmopolitan organisation boasting some 15 aircraft types and eight different nationalities in its ranks. The units of the BAF with the most personal involvement in the campaign were 351 and 352 squadron, these were units of the RAF but were entirely Yugoslav manned and sported the Yugoslav star on their aircraft. Both initially operated the Hurricane, 352 converting to Spitfires in 1944 but 351 flew Hurricane IVs to the end of the war despite complaints from the Partisan Supreme Command that the Hurricane was inferior to the Spitfire. British manned No. 6 squadron also flew Hurricanes until VE day as part of the Balkan Air Force, these two units being the last to operate Hurricanes in combat over Europe. The Yugoslav units were kept extremely busy on ground attack, anti-shipping and reconnaissance missions until the end of the war. Released from RAF control on 16th May 1945, the two squadrons and their aircraft formed the 1st Fighter Regiment of the Yugoslav Air Force. The Hurricane remained in first line service until at least 1951.
7. Avia B.534, Slovenské povstalecké letectvo (Slovak Insurgent Air Force), Slovakia 1944
The story of the Slovak National Uprising is a tragic tale of massive bravery and initial success squandered due to political infighting, failures to follow an agreed plan, and a lack of international support. It did however result in one mission that made (slightly obscure) aviation history. The uprising was launched on 29 August 1944 from Banská Bystrica in an attempt to resist German troops that had occupied Slovak territory and to overthrow the collaborationist government of Jozef Tiso.
Things went badly from the start, the insurgents lost six airfields within days and operations were conducted from the two air bases remaining in Insurgent hands at Tri Duby (Three Oaks) and Zolná. The Insurgent Air Force was small, consisting of four Avia B-534 biplane fighters, three Letov Š-328 biplane light bombers, and two Bf 109E-4, charmingly known as the ‘Combined Squadron’. They were later reinforced by a two other Bf 109G-6s and a Focke-Wulf Fw 189. Rather more meaningful air support for the insurgency came in September from the 1st Czechoslovak Fighter Air Regiment of the Soviet Red Army Air Force under the command of Captain František Fajtl. Flying the potent Lavochkin La-5FN, many of the unit’s pilots were skilled fighter pilots who had previously flown for the RAF. These pilots ultimately flew some 923 sorties and destroyed 40 Axis planes before the collapse of organised resistance. Meanwhile the Combined Squadron did what it could with its motley collection of aircraft, always struggling with supplies – particularly ammunition for the German built fighters. The most remarkable sortie by a Slovak Insurgent aircraft came on the 2nd September 1944 when František Cyprich, who had attained ‘ace’ status with the Slovak air force against the Soviets, flew an Avia B.534 to successfully intercept a Hungarian Junkers Ju 52/3m that was crossing Slovak territory, forcing it to crash land. This was the last confirmed ‘kill’ by a biplane fighter in history.
6. Vought Kingfisher, Fuerza Aérea Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Air Force), Cuba 1959
The Cuban Revolutionary Air Force garnered plenty of attention for its actions over the Bay of Pigs in 1961 but revolutionary aircraft had been in action well before that. Castro’s Cuban revolution was a remarkable turnaround from almost complete disaster in 1953 when only around 20 revolutionaries escaped President Fulgencia Batista’s forces to total victory five years later. Air power was almost totally the preserve of Batista’s government forces throughout the Cuban Revolution, the rebels fighting their way out of the Sierra Madre mountains in a guerilla campaign of greater and greater magnitude, garnering fresh troops and support as they went. But in the last few weeks of armed conflict the first ever combat operations of the Rebels’ Fuerza Aérea Revolucionaria (FAR) were flown against Batista’s crumbling forces. The aircraft utilised was a Vought OS2U ‘Kingfisher’ of the Cuban Navy in landplane, rather than the more usual floatplane, guise. Without the time, or perhaps the means, to change the markings, the Kingfisher went into battle still displaying its pre-revolutionary Navy markings. On November 7th 1958, Silva Tablada with gunner Leonel Pajan flew the little Vought armed with two small fragmentation bombs over the encircled Army camp at La Maya, containing some 200 loyalist soldiers holding out against the rebels. Unaware that the rebels possessed any aircraft the soldiers cheered the approaching aircraft, believing it would attack their besiegers.
Their joy soon turned to panic when in the course of three passes over the camp, Tablada accurately dropped his two bombs into the centre of the camp whilst Pajan strafed indiscriminately. Material damage was negligible but such was the psychological effect of ‘Operacion A-001’ that the soldiers surrendered almost immediately, bringing to an end some two weeks of fighting at La Maya. Tablada would go on to fly three more bombing missions, all escorted by the second combat aircraft of the FAR, a T-28 Trojan, before the cessation of hostilities on the 1st January 1959, these four missions representing the complete combat operations of the rebels during the Revolution. Tablada’s OS2U is preserved today in the Museo de la Revolución in Havana.
5. Curtiss Falcon, Constitutionalist Brazil, 1932
Unless you’re Brazilian, I suspect that you’ve never heard of the Constitutionalist Revolution but more fool you because it was a pretty big deal. Basically, in 1932, the state of São Paulo decided to declare war on the rest of Brazil. Ten out of ten for chutzpah but maybe not the brightest move, you would be forgiven for thinking. The ‘Paulistas’ were aggrieved by President Getúlio Vargas having seized the Brazilian presidency in a coup d’etat and ruling by decree, in place of the democratically elected Júlio Prestes. They planned to oust the Government and adopt a Brazilian Constitution, hence the name of the revolt. When hostilities broke out, Government forces could muster around 60 aircraft against the rebel’s four, none of them on either side particularly modern. Immediately, both sides frantically attempted to procure more aircraft. After being fobbed off by France the federalist forces of President Vargas managed to acquire some 200 modern warplanes in the US including the state-of-the-art Boeing 256, which was obtained by Brazil before they entered service with the U.S. Navy as the F4B-4. Meanwhile the Paulistas were prevented by naval blockade from contacting any aircraft-producing nation. Luckily for them in 1930 Curtiss-Wright had set up a production line in Chile and the revolutionaries were able to purchase nine new Chilean-built Curtiss Falcons, though one was confiscated by Paraguay during the delivery flight. The Falcons proved to be the most formidable aircraft involved in the conflict.
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Despite the disparity in numbers the revolutionaries used their meagre air assets to considerable effect, unfortunately far too late to make any difference to the outcome of the war. Nonetheless they made several dramatic attacks on Federal forces, the most successful when two Curtiss Falcons, one Waco 225 and a single Nieuport-Delage raided the Federal forces’ airstrip in the town of Mogi-Mirim, São Paulo, destroying two brand new Waco CSOs on the ground and seriously damaging two others.
4. Zlin Z-143, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, 2007-08
Sri Lanka is a lovely island riven with ethnic division and years of horrific violence. Historical ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhalese and Tamil population prompted the formation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), generally known as the ‘Tamil Tigers’. Their aim was to secure an independent Tamil state in response to policies of successive Sri Lankan governments considered discriminatory towards the minority Tamil population. Formed in 1976, the Tamil Tigers pursued this aim militarily through a full scale national insurgency from 1983 to 2009. Most of the LTTE’s operations were ground based though unusually for an insurgent group they were able to boast both a naval arm and an aviation component, the ‘Air Tigers’.
The origins of the Air Tigers remain somewhat murky, LTTE radio began to refer to Tamil Tiger aircraft during 1998 but their existence could not be confirmed, and indeed was written off as LTTE propaganda by Sri Lankan Deputy Minister for Defence Anuruddha Ratwatte, until 2007 when they made their presence known in dramatic fashion. In March two LTTE Zlin Z-143 aircraft attacked Katunayake Air force base north of Colombo, killing three air force officials and wounding nearly 20 others. IAI Kfris and recently acquired MiG-27s of the Sri Lankan Air Force were believed to be the target as they had recently bombed LTTE territory but all escaped damage. There followed a succession of small but maddening raids on civil and military targets by the Zlins, of which the Tamils never had more than five, including an audacious attack on the naval base at Trincomalee and a particularly cunning raid on a Shell refinery timed to coincide with the 2007 Cricket World Cup final between Sri Lanka and Australia which a vast swathe of the population was watching live. To add insult to injury Australia won by 53 runs. The culmination of the air attacks was a suicide attack in February 2009 by two Zlins on SriLankan Air force targets around Colombo though both attacking aircraft were destroyed before they could hit their targets. The victory of Sri Lankan forces over the LTTE later that year brought an end to the Air Tigers’ operations
3. Dewoitine D.520, Forces Francaises de l’Interieur (Free French Forces of the Interior), 1944
Is it cheating to have your insurgency backed up by the largest invasion force ever assembled? Of course not. The final fling of France’s most successful wartime fighter saw it once again heroically fighting the Nazi forces it had been designed to oppose. Dewoitine D.520s spent most of the conflict in a variety of fascist-y guises from Vichy France to Bulgaria but ended up After D-day being flown against the German occupiers by the Forces Francaises de l’Interieur (FFI), better known to English speakers as the French Resistance. Initially seizing serviceable aircraft from abandoned German and Vichy stocks a few D.520s went into action in a distinctly ad-hoc manner against their former owners.
The Dewoitines were incorporated into a unit named Groupe Doret during July 1944 under their leader, the charismatic pre-war test pilot and aerobatic champion Marcel Doret (who coincidentally had made the D.520’s maiden flight back in 1938). Although distinctly long in the tooth, negligible German air activity meant that the D.520s could be used with relative impunity attacking anti-aircraft positions and isolated pockets of German troops. Doret’s Dewoitines were also used to escort Dauntless dive bombers operating over Royan and la Pointe de Grave. Sufficient aircraft were made airworthy to allow a second squadron to begin operations in August. In the same month, following the Allied landings in Provence, both the SNCASE (Dewoitine) and the Morane-Saulnier factory, which had been manufacturing D.520s for the Germans since 1943, diverted construction to the FFI. The French Resistance therefore became the first, and so far only, insurgent group to possess not only an air force but a functioning aircraft factory! The first brand new D.520 for the Resistance, appropriately coded ‘1’ and sporting both D-day invasion stripes and the cross of Lorraine on its roundels was photographed at Tarbes-Ossun in South Western France on 24th August 1944. The D.520’s insurgent days were relatively brief however as the French Air Force was officially reformed on 1st December 1944 and Doret’s unit became G.C.II/18. The Dewoitines were replaced with Spitfires on the 1st March 1945.
2. Gloster Gladiator, Royal Iraqi Air Force, 1941
Quite reasonably believing that in 1941 Britain had rather too much on its plate to deal with an uprising against its rule, Iraq, under Prime Minister Rashid Ali, decided to throw off the imperialist yoke. Correctly surmising that this course of action would be of interest to the Axis powers he requested material assistance from Germany and Italy. As a result several Bf 110s and He 111s under the command of Colonel Werner Junck operated for a time in Iraqi markings as ‘Fliegerführer Irak’. However, the insurgent Iraqi forces were not devoid of air power of their own, being equipped with the impressive total of 116 aircraft of various types at the start of hostilities. Admittedly only about 60 of those were serviceable but these included some relatively effective modern types such as Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 bombers and Gloster Gladiators, not exactly cutting edge by 1941 but notably the same fighter equipped British units in the area. The Gladiator would turn out to be the stand-out aircraft of the conflict on both sides.
Most of the fighting centred on RAF Habbaniya airfield, a large force of Iraqi troops laid siege to the airfield on the 1st of May. Despite possessing a massive numerical advantage (there were about 9000 Iraqi troops facing some 300 defenders) and expecting negotiations to come to discuss terms for a peaceful surrender, Iraqi forces were not prepared for the remarkable intensity of the British response. On the 2nd aircraft from Habbaniya began constantly attacking Iraqi positions and it was near total superiority in the air that allowed for swift British victory. It did not quite all go in favour of the British however, one of the Royal Iraqi Air Force Gladiators succeeded in shooting down a Vickers Wellington on the 4th of May. A day later the only known Gladiator versus Gladiator ‘kill’ occurred when Pilot Officer Watson shot down an Iraqi Gladiator over Baqubah. RAF Gladiators also successfully intercepted Iraqi SM-79s and even destroyed two of the Bf 110s without loss despite the terrific speed advantage enjoyed by the German fighter.
- Mikoyan MiG-23BN, Free Libyan Air Force, 2011
The aftermath of the events of the Arab Spring still resonate around the world and perhaps nowhere greater than Libya. For a brief period it looked like a historic and justified revolution had occurred but Libya has been stricken with permanent civil war since the initial revolt against the autocratic government of Muammar Gaddafi in early 2011. Nonetheless in the early days the Libyan revolt appeared to be deposing a tyrant and the actions of the Libyan Air Force, though relatively modest, were decisive.
Collectively, probably the most significant act by the airmen of the Libyan Air Force was their defiance of orders to attack their fellow countrymen. On multiple occasions aircraft despatched to bomb protesters deliberately dropped their weapons in deserted areas. Meanwhile two pilots defected with their Mirage F.1s to Malta after their pilots refused to attack opposition forces. Events took a more dramatic turn when in March when the Free Libya Air Force announced its existence in spectacular style by utilising a MiG-23 and a Mil Mi-24 helicopter to sink two pro-Gaddafi warships. Strike missions against Gaddafi’s forces seeking to take Benghazi proved instrumental in the defence of that city and a total of 38 combat sorties was ultimately flown by Free Libyan aircraft between March the 1st and 19th when the NATO imposed no-Fly zone was imposed, effectively grounding the air force. However 32 covert supply runs by BAe 146 transport aircraft operating from roads were undertaken, these flights being escorted by MiG-21 fighters, despite imposition of the no-fly zone. Despite their heroic actions during the first Civil War, the Free Libyan Air Force was reabsorbed into the Libyan Air Force and as of 2020 is split between the forces of the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and those nominally led by Khalifa Haftar of the Libyan National Army (LNA) on behalf of the part of the National Parliament in Tobruk. The two groups have been at war since 2014.
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