• The Bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War, 26 April 1937

    It ended in March 1939 when General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist troops finally seized Madrid. Authorities differ on the number and type of aircraft involved but it appears that:

    The first attack was made by a single aircraft which dropped its bombload on the centre of the town causing a number of casualties.The second attack was made by a group of three Italian aircraft, assigned to attack the road east of Guern ica, but dropping their bombs on the town itself.The third attack 15 minutes later was made by a full squadron of Condor Legion Heinkel 111s. Guernica was about 10 km behind the lines and was undefended although a number of demoralised troops fleeing from the fighting around Marquina entered the town on 25 April.

    The Condor Legion

    The Condor Legion was formed in late 1937 to provide a formal command structure for Nazi Germany’s military support for Franco’s Nationalists. La Destruccion de Guernica


    Soon afterwards German aircraft of the Condor Legion attacked the town in several waves. The horrific air attack on the civilian population of the Basque town of Guernica by the Condor Legion, the German airforce in Spain, was a foretaste of the carpet bombing of cities in the 1939-45 War.

    The Nationalist Offensive in Northern Spain

    In spring 1937, having seized much of southern and western Spain and closed on Madrid but failed to capture it, the Nationalist command, now led by General Franco turned their attention to the north coast, where much of Spain’s industrial strength and iron ore production was concentrated. As well as causing numerous damage and massive destruction, this attack also created widespread panic as people who found that the cellars could not withstand the heavier bombs fled into the surrounding country.During and after the fourth attack a fifth wave of aircraft, He 51 fighters, strafed the town and the surrounding roads with machine guns causing more casualties among the fleeing populationWhen the aircraft finally flew away, after two hours under attack the town had been reduced to charred rubble. This caused severe casualties among people who had emerged from the cellars after the first attack.Finally, the fourth and main attack was made by three squadrons of heavy Junkers 52 bombers with a mix of high explosive, incendiary and anti personnel bombs using the newly developed tactics of carpet bombing. Both Fascist Germany and Italy sent large contingents of “volunteers” to fight alongside the Nationalist forces, not only for political reasons but also because Germany in particular saw Spain as a proving ground for the equipment and tactics to be used in the “Blitzkreig” attacks of World War II. Here, the Basque people had declared their own Basque republic, the Republic of Euskadi, with its Guernica as its Capital. The Story of Spain, Mark Williams, Santana Books (1990)

    Despite fierce resistance by Basque troops the Nationalist offensive, with overwhelming air support, had reached the towns of Durango and Marquina by late April 1937. According to historian Antony Beevor writing in 1982 , “Approximately a third of the town’s population were casualties – 1,654 killed and 889 wounded.” However, later research suggests that the casualties may have been far fewer, possibly 250-300 killed.

    Miraculously the Basque Parliament buildings and the town’s famous oak tree survived intact.

    Eyewitness accounts recall the terror of the attack.

    World Reaction to the Guernica Bombing

    The Nationalists initially tried to deny responsibility with a variety of conflicting claims, including the allegation that the town had been destroyed by the Basques themselves to deny it to the advancing forces, but. It included a land force of tanks, artillery, anti aircraft weapons, supporting services and advisers under General von Thoma, and a large air component of Luftwaffe bombers and fighters under Colonel von Richthofen, a cousin of the World War I “Red Baron”. It was von Richthofen who was to direct the bombing of Guernica.

    The Air Attack on Guernica

    Monday 26 April was market day in Guernica, and farmers from the surrounding area appear to have brought their cattle and sheep to sell in the town despite a local prohibition on markets. The Basques considered themselves autonomous, allied but not subordinate to the Madrid Government, and as the northern Republican territories were isolated from the main Republican held areas in central and western Spain, there was in any case little Madrid could do to help in their defence.

    The Spanish Civil War, Antony Beevor, Penguin (1982)

    Commissioned by the Republican Government to paint a mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the World fair in Paris in June 1937, Picasso produced the world famous picture which immortalised Guernica and its people and became probably the world’s most enduring symbol of the horror of 20th Century war.

    Cesar Vidal. The town had no air defences and when, at 4.30 in the afternoon, the church bell rang an air raid alarm, the population took to the cellars which had been earmarked as shelters.

    Guernica, the Painting by Pablo PicassoSpain’s bitterly fought Civil War began in July 1936 when a group of Army Generals led a Nationalist rising against the Republican Popular Front Government of Manuel Azana. in an era before the widespread bombing of civilian populations became commonplace, Guernica caused a swelling tide of outrage around the world.

    Pablo Picasso’s Painting of Guernica

    Even so, Guernica might have been forgotten in the greater slaughter of World War II bombing raids had it not been for Pablo Picasso.

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