Italian aircraft found their way into the Spanish Civil War, including Fiat CR.32s. Their pedigree dated to 1923, with the introduction of the CR (Caccia Rosatelli), first of a line of fighters designed by Celestino Rosatelli, featuring two wings of unequal span, braced by a girder-like set of Warren truss struts. The CR.20 of 1926 introduced an all-metal airframe, and the CR.30, introduced in 1932, featured a 600-horsepower Fiat A.30 liquid-cooled engine, streamlined spats for the main and tail wheels, and an armament of either two 7.7 or two 12.7mm Breda-SAFAT machine guns synchronized to fire above the engine. The CR.32, which first flew on April 28, 1933, was basically a scaled-down, more compact and refined CR.30. Its 592-horsepower Fiat A.30 RA engine gave it a maximum speed of 237 miles per hour at 10,000 feet. Ailerons, balanced by “park-bench” tabs, were installed in the upper wing only, and the rudder and ailerons were statically and dynamically balanced. Stable and yet phenomenally maneuverable as well as extremely sensitive on the controls, the Fiat also had an exceptional diving speed, while its robust wing structure lent confidence to the pilot.
The CR.32 was the most numerically important fighter in the Regia Aeronautica by the time hostilities broke out in Spain. Wasting little time in providing support to Franco’s cause, Mussolini dispatched twelve Savoia-Marchetti S.81 trimotor bombers to Spanish Morocco on July 31—three of which were lost en route—followed by twelve CR.32s, which arrived at Melilla aboard the freighter SS Nereid on the night of August 12. Secretly flown to Tablada, near Seville, the Fiats formed the 1a Escuadrilla de Caza de la Aviación del Tercio (1st Fighter Squadron of the Foreign Legion Air Arm) under Capt. Vincenzo Dequal on August 21.
Initially flown by Italians only, the Fiats—nicknamed Chirris by the Spaniards after the Italian pronunciation of the letters “CR”—were soon asserting themselves over the mixed bag of aircraft then available to the Fuerzas Aéreas de la República Española. Their first victim was an NiH.52 downed near Cordobá on August 21 by Sottotenente Vittor Ugo Ceccherelli. Sergente Giovanbattista Magistrini scored the next victory for the Fiats on August 27, when he shot down an NiH.52 that was escorting CASA-Breguet 19 bombers over Guadix aerodrome, killing its Spanish pilot, Capitán Antonio de Haro López.
The Italians’ first setback occurred on August 31, when three CR.32s encountered two NiH.52s and a Hawker Fury of the Republican Escuadrilla Mixta near Talavera de la Reina, resulting in two Fiats shot down and the third returning damaged. Disabled by the Nieuports flown by Cabos (Corporals) Roberto Alonso Santamaria and Rafael Peña Dugo, Sgt. Bruno Castellani force landed near Villanueva de la Serena and managed to make his way back to Nationalist territory on foot. The other Italian, Tenente (Lieutenant) Ernesto Monico, was less fortunate. Shot down in flames by Sargento (Sergeant) Andrés García Lacalle in the Fury, he bailed out and was captured by Republican militia, who claimed to have shot him as he tried to escape. The Nationalists issued a different report, saying that when Monico asked to see the Italian ambassador in Madrid, the militiamen shot him out of hand.
Meanwhile, more CR.32s were arriving in Spain, and by mid-September a second squadron had been formed, under the command of Capt. Dante Olivera. By then, the pilots of the 1a Escuadrilla were starting to refer to their unit as La Cucaracha (The Cockroach) after the popular song of the time. Three Spanish pilots—Capitán Joaquin García Morato, Capitán Ángel Salas Larrazábal, and Teniente Julio Díaz-Benjumea—had joined the unit at that point. García Morato first flew the CR.32 on September 6.
September 11 saw the Fiats in full stride, claiming two Breguet 19s and five fighters. Two of the Republican aircraft were credited to Magistrini, and García Morato was credited with an NiH.52 over Talavera for his ace-making fifth victory. By the end of the month, García Morato’s score stood at eight, making him the war’s leading ace—a status that he never relinquished. The Nationalists, with the generous assistance of the German and Italian allies, had achieved air superiority, but that situation was about to undergo an unexpected change.
The later careers of the three transitional fighters of the Spanish Civil War give insights into the conclusions drawn by the countries that built them. Having often overcome the performance handicaps of the CR.32s by skill and adaptive tactics, the Italian pilots remained hard to convince that the days of the biplane fighter, let alone that of the lone dogfighter, were on the wane. Consequently the next important Fiat fighter, the CR.42, would be another biplane with fixed landing gear and an open cockpit—even while that same company was producing a more advanced design with retractable landing gear and an enclosed canopy, the G.50.