With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War on 18 July 1936, a politically conscious and strife-torn Europe was polarized in a struggle between Left and Right. This bitterly fought struggle soon drew participants from Russia, Germany, and Italy and provided these nations with a dress rehearsal for their doctrine and equipment to be used in a bigger conflict to follow--the Second World War. Spain's Jose "Pepe" Larios, the Duke of Lerma, flew combat throughout his nation's bloody civil war and became one of 20 aces on Franco's Nationalist side.
Born into aristocracy and educated in England, 26- year-old Larios joined the Spanish Nationalist Air Force to help "prevent the total destruction of national traditions" and to keep Spain from becoming a satellite state of Russia. After flying as a bombardier in converted Junker 52s for 1 year, he was selected for pilot training and then assigned to the famed "Patrulla Azul" (Blue Patrol) under the command of Joaquin Morato. Flying their Italian-built Flat CR 32 fighters with the Black Saint Andrew's cross painted on the rudder, the Spanish Nationalist pilots achieved 294 aerial victories and surpassed the better known and highly publicized German and Italian volunteer aviators who also supported the Nationalist cause.
Captain Larios flew a total of 278 combat missions and participated in nearly every major campaign from the Siege of Toledo to the bloody Battle of the Ebro. Furthermore, he achieved six confirmed and five probable victories in aerial combat while flying fighters for the last 20 months of the civil war. After General Franco's forces were victorious in March 1939, Larios served his country during World War II as an emissary to England and Germany. Using his personal diaries from the civil war, he later wrote Combat Over Spain, the first book published in English which emphasizes the aerial phase of the Spanish Civil War from the Nationalist side. Jose Larios is one of his nation's remaining grandees (noblemen).
Although sometimes described as unattractive, the Fiat CR 32 could outmaneuver any aircraft of the mid-1930s. Flown in a variety of combat roles in South America, China, and Africa, it was over the skies of Spain that this agile biplane gained its reputation as a durable fighter. On 22 September 1938, Captain Larios fought his toughest air battle in this aircraft while deep in enemy controlled territory. After attacking two large formations of Russian-built fighters, he entered into three separate dog fights and achieved three probable victories before being forced to return home with his aircraft severely damaged. Based on the demonstrated combat success of the CR 32 by Jose Larios and his fellow Nationalist pilots in the Spanish Civil War, the Italians chose to use this biplane as their front-line fighter during the initial stages of World War II. This decision would help lead to their aerial defeat in Europe when aviation technology soon surpassed the capabilities of the CR 32.