BOMBING OF GUERNICA: Spain. Spanish Civil War. 1937. On 26 April 1937, 100 aircraft of the German Luftwaffe's Legion Condor, under the command of Major General Hugo Sperrle with Lieutenant Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen serving as his chief of staff, conducted a three hour bombing attack on the city of Guernica, then held by the Loyalist Republican Army. Participating units included Bomber Group K/88, Fighter Group J/88, Experimental Squadron VB/88, and two Italian fighter squadrons. Guernica was approximately 10 miles behind the front lines and was crowded with retreating soldiers and refugees (and thus this attack presaged the 1945 bombing of Dresden). In addition, the day was the normal market day for the town and surrounding area.
At 1630 the air raid warning was sounded by the bell of the church in Guernica. In response to the warning, the population took cover in cellars that had been designated as refugios (shelters). A single Heinkel He-111 bomber bombed the center of the town. After this first attack a majority of those in shelters ventured out, some going to help those injured in the bombing.
At approximately 1645 the remaining He-111s of the Experimental Squadron attacked. Those outside shelter immediately rushed to take cover in the midst of the smoke and dust from the attack. At the same time it became obvious to the shelterees that the refugios were insufficient protection against the heavier bombs, and much of the population tried to rush to open fields around the town. The escorting fighters conducted strafing runs over the town and the people trying to seek shelter in the fields.
At approximately 1715 Junkers Ju-52/3m bombers from three squadrons at Burgos arrived over the target and commenced attacks in 20 minute time sequences for 2 hours and 30 minutes. This carpet bombing included the full range of high explosive and incendiary bombs.
Two thirds of the approximately 40 to 50 tons dropped by the the German bombers were 500 and 250 kilogram high explosive bombs and 20 pound anti-personnel bombs; one third were 2 pound incendiary bombs. Approximately 1,654 people may have been killed and another 889 wounded in the attack, and reports indicate as much as 70 percent of the town was destroyed, with most of the rest heavily damaged. Fires ignited during the attack are reported to have burned for three days.
Guernica fell to General Francisco Franco's advancing army two days after the attack. The attack was widely seen as an atrocity at the time, and had long term repercussions for Franco's reputation. In a piece of particularly repugnant propaganda work, Nationalists advanced the false argument that the city had actually been set afire by the defenders in an attempt to create an atrocity for which the Nationalists would be blamed. Some of the claims, such as that by a professor of theology in Rome that the attack could not have been conducted by the Germans supporting the Nationalists as there were no Germans in Spain, were ridiculous on their face.
This attack was the first case of the deliberate destruction of a city in Europe by air attack, although it had little significant impact on the outcome of the Spanish Civil War, as the Nationalists had by this time a clear advantage in the fighting. However, bolstered by propaganda, it had a major effect on European thinking about the role of air attack against cities in modern war. Reflecting the view of the general public, Pablo Picasso's painting Guernica captures the perceived horror of the attack. However, the attack on Guernica also shaped the mind set of policy makers and reinforced the perception that aerial bombardment could destroy modern cities in a single attack with minimal warning. This lesson was repeated in the bombing of Warsaw in the first days of World War II.
It is worth noting that much attention has been paid to the selection of targets in the attack. Lieutenant Colonel von Richthofen is reported to have stated that the Renteria bridge over the Mundaca River at the edge of the town was the target in an attempt to cut off the retreat of Republican forces. The failure to hit the bridge has been widely cited by popular commentators as proof that the intent of the attack was to destroy the town, not the bridge. This reflects a basic ignorance of military capabilities in the 1930s. In actuality precision bombing is a product of the technology of the 1990s - in World War II aerial bombardment was accurate accidentally, and the failure to hit a specific target commonplace (see, for example, similar accuracy problems in the bombing of Warsaw and Helsinki). This does not suggest that the destruction of Guernica was not intentional, but it does make it likely that the bridge's survival is not proof of that intent.
Sources: Boyne, Walter J., Colonel, The Influence of Air Power upon History, New York, New York, United States of America, Pelican Publishing Company, 2003. Neillands, Robin, British Commission for Military History, The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive Against Nazi Germany, Woodstock, New York, United States of America, The Overlook Press, 2001. "Guernica ... bombing of Guernica," location http://www.pbs.org/treasurersoftheworld/guernica/glevel_1/1_bombing.html, Public Broadcasting System, accessed 9 August 2003. Beevor, Antony, historian, The Spanish Civil War, New York, New York, United States of America, Penguin Books, 1982.
Entry 0357 - updated 8 August 2003