Bombing of Guernica

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Operation Rügen
Part of the Spanish Civil War
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H25224, Guernica, Ruinen.jpg
Ruins of Guernica (1937)
Basque Country location map.svg
Red pog.svg
Location of Guernica within the Basque Autonomous Community
Type Aerial bombing
Guernica, Basque Country, Spain

Coordinates: 43°18′50″N2°40′42″W / 43.31389°N 2.67833°W / 43.31389; -2.67833
Planned byNational Defense Junta
Date26 April 1937;82 years ago (1937-04-26)
16:30 19:30 (CET)
Executed byFlag of Spain 1945 1977.svg  Nationalist Spain
Casualties~150–1,650 (estimates vary) killed

The bombing of Guernica (26 April 1937) was an aerial bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. It was carried out, at the behest of Francisco Franco's rebel Nationalist faction, by its allies, the Nazi German Luftwaffe's Condor Legion and the Fascist Italian Aviazione Legionaria, under the code name 'Operation Rügen'. The operation opened the way to Franco's capture of Bilbao and his victory in northern Spain.

1937 (MCMXXXVII) was a common year starting on Friday of the Gregorian calendar, the 1937th year of the Common Era (CE) and Anno Domini (AD) designations, the 937th year of the 2nd millennium, the 37th year of the 20th century, and the 8th year of the 1930s decade.

Aerial bombing of cities

The aerial bombing of cities in warfare is an optional element of strategic bombing which became widespread during World War I. The bombing of cities grew to a vast scale in World War II, and is still practiced today. The development of aerial bombardment marked an increased capacity of armed forces to deliver ordnance from the air against combatants, military bases, and factories, with a greatly reduced risk to its ground forces. Civilian and non-combatant casualties in bombed cities have variously been a purposeful result of the bombings, or unavoidable collateral damage depending on intent and technology. A number of multilateral efforts have been made to restrict the use of aerial bombardment so as to protect non-combatants.

Basque Country (greater region) Cultural and historic land of the Basque people

The Basque Country is the name given to the home of the Basque people. The Basque country is located in the western Pyrenees, straddling the border between France and Spain on the coast of the Bay of Biscay. Euskal Herria is the oldest documented Basque name for the area they inhabit, dating from the 16th century.


The attack gained controversy because it involved the bombing of civilians by a military air force, an action which a war correspondent at the time described as "unparalleled in military history". [1] Seen as a war crime, it was one of the first crimes against humanity to capture global attention. [1] The number of victims is still disputed; the Basque government reported 1,654 people killed at the time, while local historians identified 126 victims [2] (later revised by the authors of the study to 153). [3] A British source used by the Air War College claims 400 civilians died. [4] [5] Soviet archives claim 800 deaths on 1 May 1937, but this number may not include victims who later died of their injuries in hospitals or whose bodies were discovered buried in the rubble. [6]

War crime Serious violation of the laws of war

A war crime is an act that constitutes a serious violation of the laws of war that gives rise to individual criminal responsibility. Examples of war crimes include intentionally killing civilians or prisoners, torturing, destroying civilian property, taking hostages, performing a perfidy, raping, using child soldiers, pillaging, declaring that no quarter will be given, and seriously violating the principles of distinction and proportionality, and military necessity.

Air War College senior professional military education school of the U.S. Air Force

The Air War College (AWC) is the senior Professional Military Education (PME) school of the U.S. Air Force. A part of the United States Air Force's Air University, AWC emphasizes the employment of air, space, and cyberspace in joint operations. Headquartered at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, its higher headquarters is the Air Education and Training Command (AETC) at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. It is one of six war colleges within the U.S. Department of Defense's Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) Phase II Education Program for commissioned officers.

The bombing is the subject of a famous anti-war painting by Pablo Picasso, commissioned by the Spanish Republic. It was also depicted in a woodcut by the German artist Heinz Kiwitz, [7] who was later killed fighting in the International Brigades, [8] and by Rene Magritte in the painting Le Drapeau Noir. [9] The bombing shocked and inspired many other artists, including a sculpture by René Iché, one of the first electroacoustic music pieces by Patrick Ascione, musical compositions by Octavio Vazquez (Gernika Piano Trio) and René-Louis Baron, and poems by Paul Eluard (Victory of Guernica), and Uys Krige (Nag van die Fascistiese Bomwerpers) (English translation from the Afrikaans: Night of the Fascist Bombers). There is also a short film from 1950 by Alain Resnais titled Guernica .

<i>Guernica</i> (Picasso) oil painting by Pablo Picasso

Guernica is a large oil painting on canvas by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso completed in June 1937. Now in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, the gray, black, and white painting was done at Picasso's home in Paris. It is regarded by many art critics as one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings in history, and is one of Picasso's best known works.

Pablo Picasso 20th-century Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, and stage designer

Pablo Ruiz Picasso was a Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, stage designer, poet and playwright who spent most of his adult life in France. Regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, he is known for co-founding the Cubist movement, the invention of constructed sculpture, the co-invention of collage, and for the wide variety of styles that he helped develop and explore. Among his most famous works are the proto-Cubist Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), and Guernica (1937), a dramatic portrayal of the bombing of Guernica by the German and Italian airforces during the Spanish Civil War.

Woodcut relief printing technique — print produced by xylography technique

Woodcut is a relief printing technique in printmaking. An artist carves an image into the surface of a block of wood—typically with gouges—leaving the printing parts level with the surface while removing the non-printing parts. Areas that the artist cuts away carry no ink, while characters or images at surface level carry the ink to produce the print. The block is cut along the wood grain. The surface is covered with ink by rolling over the surface with an ink-covered roller (brayer), leaving ink upon the flat surface but not in the non-printing areas.


Guernica (Gernika in Basque; officially Gernika-Lumo), in the Basque province of Biscay, and 30 kilometres east of Bilbao, has long been a centre of great significance to the Basque people. Its Gernikako Arbola ("the tree of Gernika" in Basque) is an oak tree that symbolizes traditional freedoms for the Biscayan people and, by extension, for the Basque people as a whole. Not only was Guernica considered the identity of Basque, but it was also considered the spiritual capital of Basque people. [10] Guernica has always been celebrated as the home of Basque liberties. [11] Guernica was also the location of the Spanish weapons manufacturer Astra-Unceta y Cía, which had been a supplier of firearms to the Spanish military and police forces since 1912. At the time of the bombing, the population of Guernica was 7,000 people, [12] and the battlefront was 30 kilometres away. [13] [14]

Basque language Language of the Basque people

Basque (; euskara[eus̺ˈkaɾa]) is a language spoken in the Basque Country, a region that straddles the westernmost Pyrenees in adjacent parts of northern Spain and southwestern France. Linguistically, Basque is unrelated to the other languages of Europe and is a language isolate relative to any other known living language. The Basques are indigenous to, and primarily inhabit, the Basque Country. The Basque language is spoken by 28.4% (751,500) of Basques in all territories. Of these, 93.2% (700,300) are in the Spanish area of the Basque Country and the remaining 6.8% (51,200) are in the French portion.

Biscay Province of Spain

Biscay is a province of Spain located just south of the eponymous bay. The name also refers to a historical territory of the Basque Country, heir of the ancient Lordship of Biscay. Its capital city is Bilbao. It is one of the most prosperous and important provinces of Spain as a result of the massive industrialization in the last years of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. Since the deep deindustrialization of the 1970s, the economy has come to rely more on the services sector.

Bilbao Municipality in Basque Country, Spain

Bilbao is a city in northern Spain, the largest city in the province of Biscay and in the Basque Country as a whole. It is also the largest city proper in northern Spain. Bilbao is the tenth largest city in Spain, with a population of 345,141 as of 2015. The Bilbao metropolitan area has roughly 1 million inhabitants, making it one of the most populous metropolitan areas in northern Spain; with a population of 875,552 the comarca of Greater Bilbao is the fifth-largest urban area in Spain. Bilbao is also the main urban area in what is defined as the Greater Basque region.

Military situation

1937 advance of Nationalist troops in Northern Spain Frente del Norte - Spanish Civil War (March-Sept 1937).svg
1937 advance of Nationalist troops in Northern Spain

Advances by Nationalist troops led by Generalísimo Francisco Franco had eaten into the territory controlled by the Republican Government. The Basque Government, an autonomous regional administrative body formed by Basque nationalists, sought to defend Biscay and parts of Guipuzcoa with its own light Basque Army. At the time of the raid, Guernica represented a focal strategic point for the Republican forces. It stood between the Nationalists and capture of Bilbao. Bilbao was seen as key to bringing the war to a conclusion in the north of Spain. Guernica also was the path of retreat for the Republicans from the northeast of Biscay.

Francisco Franco Spanish general and dictator

Francisco Franco Bahamonde was a Spanish general and politician who ruled over Spain as Head of State and dictator under the title Caudillo from 1939, after the nationalist victory in the Spanish Civil War, until his death in 1975. This period in Spanish history is commonly known as Francoist Spain.

Second Spanish Republic the regime that existed in Spain, 1931 to 1939

The Spanish Republic, commonly known as the Second Spanish Republic, was the democratic government that existed in Spain from 1931 to 1939. The Republic was proclaimed on 14 April 1931, after the deposition of Alfonso XIII, and it lost the Spanish Civil War on 1 April 1939 to the rebel faction, that would establish a military dictatorship under the rule of Francisco Franco.

Basque Government Government body in Spain

The Basque Government is the governing body of the Basque Autonomous Community of Spain. The head of the Basque government is known as the Lehendakari. The Lehendakari is appointed by the Basque Parliament every four years, after a regional election. Its headquarters are located in the Lakua district of Vitoria-Gasteiz in Álava.

Prior to the Condor Legion raid, the town had not been directly involved in the fighting, although Republican forces were in the area; 23 battalions of Basque army troops were at the front east of Guernica. The town also housed two Basque army battalions, although it had no static air defenses, and it was thought that no air cover could be expected due to recent losses of the Republican Air Force. [15]

Market day

Monday 26 April was market day; there were more than 10,000 people in the former Basque capital. [16] Generally speaking, a market day would have attracted people from the surrounding areas to Guernica to conduct business. Market days consisted of local farmers bringing in their crops to sell to the village people. They would bring the crops of the week’s labour to the main square, which is where the market was held. [11]

There is a historical debate over whether a market was being held that particular Monday as, prior to the bombing, the Basque government had ordered a general halt to markets to prevent congestion of roads, and restricted large meetings. It is accepted by most historians that Monday "...would have been a market day". [17]

Luftwaffe doctrine, 1933–1942

James Corum states that a prevalent view about the Luftwaffe and its Blitzkrieg operations was that it had a doctrine of terror bombing, in which civilians were deliberately targeted in order to break the will or aid the collapse of an enemy. After the bombing of Guernica in 1937, Wieluń and Warsaw in 1939, and Rotterdam in 1940, it was commonly assumed that terror bombing was a part of Luftwaffe doctrine. During the interwar period the Luftwaffe leadership officially rejected the concept of terror bombing, and confined the air arms use to battlefield support of interdiction operations.

The vital industries and transportation centres that would be targeted for shutdown were valid military targets. It could be claimed civilians were not to be targeted directly, but the breakdown of production would affect their morale and will to fight. German legal scholars of the 1930s carefully worked out guidelines for what type of bombing was permissible under international law. While direct attacks against civilians were ruled out as "terror bombing", the concept of attacking vital war industries-and probable heavy civilian casualties and breakdown of civilian morale-was ruled as acceptable. [18]

General Walther Wever compiled a doctrine known as The Conduct of the Aerial War in 1935. In this document, which the Luftwaffe adopted, the Luftwaffe rejected Giulio Douhet's theory of terror bombing. Terror bombing was deemed to be "counter-productive", increasing rather than destroying the enemy's will to resist. [19] Such bombing campaigns were regarded as diversion from the Luftwaffe's main operations, destruction of the enemy armed forces. [20]

The raid

A Luftwaffe 1 kg incendiary bomb dated 1936 Luftwaffe 1kg Incendiary Bomb.jpg
A Luftwaffe 1 kg incendiary bomb dated 1936

The Condor Legion was entirely under the command of the Nationalist forces. The order to perform the raid was transmitted to the commanding officer of the Condor Legion, Oberstleutnant Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, from the Spanish Nationalist Command. [21]

Mission planning

While questions are often raised over the intent of the raid, the diaries of the planner and commander of the mission made public in the 1970s indicate that an attack on Guernica represented part of a wider Nationalist advance in the area and was also designed to support Franco's forces already in place. [22]

Richthofen, understanding the strategic importance of the town in the advance on Bilbao and restricting Republican retreat, ordered an attack against the roads and bridge in the Renteria suburb. Destruction of the bridge was considered the primary objective since the raid was to operate in conjunction with Nationalist troop movements against Republicans around Marquina. Secondary objectives were restriction of Republican traffic/equipment movements and the prevention of bridge repair via the creation of rubble around the bridge.

On 22 March 1937 Franco started to put his plan into action, starting with his air chief, General Kindelan. The German army would first take the Guadalajara front. Italians then would be restructured at Palencia. From there two new divisions were formed. General Emilio Mola would start the campaign against the north (Asturias, Santander and Biscay). All Nationalist equipment was sent to the north front to support Mola. The main reason to attack first from the north was the suspicion that a decisive victory could be won there quickly. Mola wanted to make this fight quick; he let the Basque people know that if they wanted to surrender he would spare their lives and homes. On 31 March Mola's threat was put into action and the fighting began in Durango. [11]

Condor Legion persuaded Franco to send troops to go north and to be led by General Emilio Mola. 31 March 1937, Mola attacked Biscay province, including the bombing of Durango by the Condor Legion. Republicans put up a tough fight against the German troops, but eventually were forced back. Many refugees fled to Guernica for safety, about a thousand people turned to Guernica. On 25 April, Mola sent a warning to Franco saying that he was planning a heavy strike against Guernica. [23]

To meet these objectives, two Heinkel He 111s, one Dornier Do 17, eighteen Ju 52 Behelfsbomber, and three Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 of the (Corpo Truppe Volontarie) were assigned for the mission. These were armed with 250 kg (550 lb) medium high-explosive bombs, 50 kg (110 lb) light explosive bombs and 1 kg (2.2 lb) incendiaries [24] The ordnance load for the 24 bombers was 22 tonnes (22 long tons; 24 short tons) in total. A follow up to the bombing raid was also planned for the next day involving Messerschmitt Bf 109 raids in the area. The order was noted on 26 April by Richthofen as:

Starting at once: A/88 and J/88 for free fighter bomber mission on the streets near Marquina-Guernica-Guerriciaz. K/88 (after Returning from Guerriciaz), VB/88 and Italians for the streets and the bridge (including suburb) east of Guernica. There we have to close the traffic, if we finally want a decision against personnel and materiel of the enemy. Vigon agrees to move his troops for blocking all streets south of Guernica. If this succeeds, we will have trapped the enemy around Marquina. [25]

First five waves of raid

The first wave arrived over Guernica around 16:30. A Dornier Do 17, coming from the south, dropped approximately twelve 50 kg (110 lb) bombs.

The three Italian SM.79s had taken off from Soria at 15:30 with orders to "bomb the road and bridge to the east of Guernica, in order to block the enemy retreat" during the second wave. Their orders explicitly stated not to bomb the town itself. [26] During a single 60-second pass over the town, from north to south, the SM.79s dropped thirty-six 50 kg (110 lb) light explosive bombs. César Vidal says that at this point, the damage to the town was "relatively limited... confined to a few buildings", including the church of San Juan and headquarters of the Izquierda Republicana ("Republican Left") political party.

The next three waves of the first attack then occurred, ending around 18:00. The third wave consisted of a Heinkel He 111 escorted by five Regia Aeronautica Fiat CR.32 fighters led by Capitano Corrado Ricci. The fourth and fifth waves were carried out by German twin-engined planes. Vidal notes:

If the aerial attacks had stopped at that moment, for a town that until then had maintained its distance from the convulsions of war, it would have been a totally disproportionate and insufferable punishment. However, the biggest operation was yet to come. [26]

Subsequent raids

Earlier, around noon that day, the Junkers Ju 52s of the Condor Legion had carried out a mission around Gerrikaraiz. Following this they landed to re-arm and then took off to complete the raid on Guernica. The attack would run from north to south, coming from the Bay of Biscay and up the course of the Urdaibai estuary.

The 1st and 2nd Squadrons of the Condor Legion took off at about 16:30, with the 3rd Squadron taking off from Burgos a few minutes later. They were escorted from Vitoria-Gazteiz by a squadron of Fiat fighters and Messerschmitt Bf 109Bs of Günther Lützow's 2. Staffel (2nd Squadron) of Jagdgruppe 88 (J/88), for a total of twenty-nine planes. Lützow himself did not participate in the attack, he was on home leave from 8–29 April 1937. [27]

From 18:30 to 18:45, each of the three bomber squadrons attacked in a formation of three Ju 52s abreast—an attack front of about 150 m (490 ft). At the same time, and continuing for around 15 minutes after the bombing wave, the Bf 109Bs and Heinkel He 51 biplanes[ citation needed ] strafed the roads leading out of town, adding to civilian casualties.


The bombing shattered the city's defenders' will to resist, allowing the rebel Nationalists to overrun it. This indirectly supported Douhet's theory, which predicted this result. The rebels faced little resistance and took complete control of the town by 29 April. The attacks destroyed the majority of Guernica. Three quarters of the city's buildings were reported completely destroyed, and most others sustained damage. Among infrastructure spared were the arms factories Unceta and Company and Talleres de Guernica along with the Assembly House Casa de Juntas and the Gernikako Arbola. Since the Luftwaffe was then operating on Wever's theory of bombing as a military action, the mission was considered a failure as a result. However, the rubble and chaos that the raid created severely restricted the movement of Republican forces.

Since his appointment on the northern front, the Soviet aviation advisor Arjénoukhine had insistently called for air reinforcements, motivating his demands by high losses inflicted by nationalist aviation over Republican troops as well as civilian population. [28] On 8, 9 May I-15 and 6 R-Zet were sent by air from central Spain through Toulouse, in France. Planes were immediately immobilized by non-intervention committee, and later sent back unarmed to central Spain.


The number of civilian fatalities is now set at between 170 and 300 people. Until the 1980s it had been generally accepted that the number of deaths had been over 1,700, but these numbers are now known to have been exaggerated. [29] Historians now agree that the number of deaths was under 300. [30] [31] [32] [33] [34] [35] [36] [37] [38] [39] [40] [41] [42] [43] [44]

An early study by Gernikazarra Historia Taldea estimated the number of victims to be 126, [2] later revised to 153, and is still considered by the organisation to be provisional. [3] Those incomplete data roughly correspond to the mortuary records of the town that survived, and do not include the 592 deaths registered in Bilbao's hospital. Raúl Arias Ramos in his book La Legión Cóndor en la Guerra Civil states that there were 250 dead. The study by Joan Villarroya and J.M. Sole i Sabate in their book España en Llamas. La Guerra Civil desde el Aire states that there were 300 dead. [45] These studies, cited by historians such as Stanley Payne and Antony Beevor as well as media such as the BBC and El Mundo , provide the currently recognized death toll in those numbers. [33] [34] [46]

After Nationalist forces led by General Emilio Mola's forces took the town three days later, the Nationalist side claimed that no effort to establish an accurate number had been made by the opposite side. The Basque government, in the confused aftermath of the raids, reported 1,654 dead and 889 wounded. It roughly agrees with the testimony of British journalist George Steer, correspondent of The Times, which estimated that 800 to 3,000 of 5,000 people perished in Guernica. These figures were adopted over the years by some commentators. [47] These figures are represented in a majority of the literature from that period and up to the 1970s.

The Nationalist junta gave a patently false description of the events (claiming that the destruction had been caused by Republicans burning the town as they fled) and seems to have made no effort to establish an accurate number. [48] At an extreme low, the Francoist newspaper Arriba claimed, on 30 January 1970, that there had only been twelve deaths.

Bombs to casualty ratio

Issues with the originally released figures were raised following an appraisal of large scale bombing raids during the Second World War. A comparison of the Guernica figures with the figures of dead resulting from air attacks on major European cities during the Second World War exposed an anomaly. James Corum uses the figure of forty tons of bombs dropped on Guernica, and calculates that if the figure of 1654 dead is accepted as accurate then the raid caused 41 fatalities per ton of bombs. By way of comparison the Dresden air raid during February 1945 which saw 3,431 tons of bombs dropped on the city caused fewer deaths per ton of bombs: 7.2–10.2 fatalities per ton of bombs dropped. Corum, who ascribes the discrepancy between the high death toll reported at Guernica and in other cases such as Rotterdam to propaganda, goes on to say that for Guernica:

...a realistic estimate on the high side of bombing effectiveness (7–12 fatalities per ton of bombs) would yield a figure of perhaps 300–400 fatalities in Guernica. This is certainly a bloody enough event, but reporting that a small town was bombed with a few hundred killed would not have had the same effect as reporting that a city was bombed with almost 1,700 dead". [4]

Material damages

The numbers regarding the level of material destruction of the city still vary depending on the author and on what type of damages are being taken into account. Salas Larrazábal Estimated that the bombs destroyed 14% of the local buildings. Cástor Uriarte (1970) estimated a total of 74% of the buildings were destroyed, mainly due to the fire that could not be extinguished until the next day. [49]

English-language media reporting

George Steer's report in The Times The tragedy of Guernica (George Steer).jpg
George Steer's report in The Times

The first English-language media reports of the destruction in Guernica appeared two days later. George Steer, a reporter for The Times , who was covering the Spanish Civil War from inside the country, authored the first full account of events. Steer's reporting set the tone for much of the subsequent reportage. Steer pointed out the clear German complicity in the action. [50] The evidence of three small bomb cases stamped with the German Imperial Eagle made clear that the official German position of neutrality in the Civil War and the signing of a Non-Intervention Pact was a sham. Steer's report was syndicated to The New York Times and then worldwide, generating widespread shock, outrage, and fear. There was coverage in other national and international editions also:

Noel Monks, an Australian correspondent in Spain for the London Daily Express , was the first reporter to arrive on the scene after the bombing. He received the following cable from his office, "Berlin denies Guernica bombing. Franco says he had no planes up yesterday owing fog. Queipo de Llano says Reds dynamited Guernica during retreat." [52]

Overall, the impression generated was one which fed the widely held public fear of air attack which had been building throughout the 1930s, a fear which accurately anticipated that in the next war the aerial forces of warring nations would be able to wipe whole cities off the map.

Republican media reporting

After the attack, José Antonio Aguirre published the following press note:

"German airforces, following orders of the Spanish Fascists, have bombed Guernica, setting the historical villa, that so much veneration has among the Basques, on fire. They (the Spanish Fascists) wanted to hurt us in the most vulnerable spot of our(the Basques) patriotic sentiment, proving once again what Euzkadi(Basque provinces) may expect from those who won't hesitate in destroying the sanctuary that commemorates centuries of our freedom and democracy (...). Before God and before History, which will judge us all, I assure you that the German planes bombed the population of Guernica, with unprecedented viciousness, for three hours, reducing the historical villa to ashes. They haunted women and children with machine gun fire, killing large numbers of them (..)". [53] The Republican statement counted 1645 deaths and 889 wounded.

This account is not flatly false like the National/Rebel account. The attribution of responsibility is correct, the cause of the bombing is probably wrong but reasonable at the time, and machinegun fire was indeed used to create fires in the village. However, it contains lies and is intentionally misleading in various points. It suggests that the bombing was sustained through three hours, while three hours is the time between the first and last round among the three made on Guernica. The numbers of dead and injured have been now proven to be completely false and impossible for the size of the locality(see other parts of the article for actual numbers). The intentional, individual chase of civilians by German planes has not been disproven (nor proven) but has some problematic points in it. Some prestigious foreign journalists like Hemingway, Orwell and Saint-Exupéry reported it, but none of them actually saw it and have other proven inaccuracies in their accounts of the war. No material proofs of it had been found, and the streets of the village are far too narrow for the chase to take place. It is possible that the chase of civilians happened outside of the urban area as the population was fleeing from the bombs, but a generalized chase and murder of the witnesses seems like a pointless waste of resources, or even a counter producing action, if the goal of the German airforces was, as it is now believed, to extend demoralization and fear in the neighbouring villages. [54]

Media reporting and denial by Franco's military board

On April 27, the day after the bombing, the rebel general Gonzalo Queipo de Llano broadcast a statement through Union Radio Seville [55] accusing the local population and "the reds" of having deliberately burned and dynamited Guernica as part of a scorched earth policy. Among the facts that he provides to prove his version are the " absolute absence of German airforces" in the National/Rebel airforces and the bad weather.

On 29 April, in view of the outrage caused by the bombing in European public opinion, Franco's propaganda service issued an international official statement with the same version of the facts. [56] This theory found favor in conservative British journals, including The Times which even put in doubt the testimony from its own correspondent, George Steer. [57] While Republican forces had been involved in pursuing a scorched earth strategy in the past, (notably in Irun, which was dynamited), Steer's reporting was supported by the reporting of other journalists who witnessed the same levels of destruction. Furthermore, there were objective proofs available at the time of the falsehood of Queipo Llano's version: The bad weather he mentions only unleashed hours after the attack had been perpetrated, and the weaponry of the city and the bridge to get to it were among the few buildings which had not been destroyed.

The Germans denied any involvement, as well. Von Richthofen claimed that the Germans had a target that was a bridge over the Mundaca River, which was on the edge of town. It was chosen for the fact that it would cut off the fleeing Republican troops. However, even though the Germans had the best airmen and the best planes in Spain, none of their bombs hit the presumed target. [58]

Some Nationalist reporters suggested that the town had been bombed from the air, but by Republican airplanes. The bombs were said to have been made in the Basque country and the explosions happened because of dynamite stored in the sewers. Another theory by Nationalists was that there were a "few bomb fragments found" in Guernica, but the damage was mainly caused by Basque incendiaries. [59] Franco's regime minimized the bombing for decades. In 1970, newspaper Arriba claimed that there had only been twelve deaths during the bombing raid. [60]

The scorched earth version was maintained as the official version all through Franco's regime.

Views on the attack

The attack has entered the lexicon of war as an example of terror bombing. It is also remembered by the surviving inhabitants and Basque people as such. Due to the lingering divisions from the conflict, the event remains a source of emotion and public recrimination.

Military intentions

A commonly held viewpoint is that the involvement of the Luftwaffe in the Civil War occurred because of shared anti-communism and to form a proving ground for troops employed later during World War II. This view is supported by the comments of then Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring at the Nuremberg Trials:

I urged him (Adolf Hitler) to give support [to Franco] under all circumstances, firstly, in order to prevent the further spread of communism in that theater and, secondly, to test my young Luftwaffe at this opportunity in this or that technical respect. [61]

The Germans bombed Guernica in a deliberate attempt to destroy the entire town. [58]

After the war a telegram sent from Franco’s headquarters was found revealing that he had asked for a Condor Legion attack on Guernica. His goals were to discourage the Basque people and take over the Basque Government. [10] Hermann Goering also confessed in 1946 that Germany had considered Guernica as a testing ground.

Carpet bombing

Alongside the potential for gains in combat experience it is also thought that various strategic initiatives were first tried as part of Luftwaffe involvement in the conflict. Theories on strategic bombing were first developed by the Luftwaffe with the first exhibition of "carpet bombing" in the September 1937 Asturias campaign. Comparisons between the raid on Guernica and the fate of other cities during the conflict are also telling. As the fighting progressed into March 1938 Italian pilots flying as Aviazione Legionaria under Field Marshal Hugo Sperrle were involved in thirteen raids against Barcelona involving fire and gas[ citation needed ] bombs.

The use of "carpet bombing" was becoming standard practice by Condor Legion personnel. To illustrate this point, military historian James S. Corum cites an excerpt from a 1938 Condor Legion report on this use of this tactic:

We have had notable results in hitting the targets near the front, especially in bombing villages which hold enemy reserves and headquarters. We have had great success because these targets are easy to find and can be thoroughly destroyed by carpet bombing. [4]

On the Spanish side, threats made prior to the raid by General Emilio Mola to "end the war in the North of Spain quickly" and threats apparently made against Republicans in Bilbao afterward implied a blunting of strategy and that air raids were effective and set to become an increasingly favorite instrument in the Nationalist war effort.

Other theories

Vidal outlines some other commonly voiced theories on the raid: [62]

It was von Richthofen himself who selected the mix of blast, splinter and fire bombs for this particular operation, agreed at a military conference in Burgos the night before. Von Richthofen wrote in his diary: "As it was a complete success of our 250 kg (explosive) and ECB1 (incendiary) bombs".


The bombing gained immediate international media attention because of the intentional targeting of civilians by aerial bombers, [65] a strategy widely recognized as "deviant", causing "international horror". [66]

Steer's reports on the horrors of Guernica were greatly appreciated by the Basque people. Steer had made their plight known. The Basque authorities later honored his memory by naming a street in Bilbao George Steer Kalea, and commissioning a bronze bust with the dedication: "George Steer, journalist, who told the world the story about Guernica." [67]

Despite Francoist efforts to play down the reports, they proliferated and led to widespread international outrage at the time.

Picasso's painting

Mural in Guernica based on the Picasso painting. Basque nationalists advocate that the painting be brought to the town, as can be seen in the slogan underneath. Mural del Gernika.jpg
Mural in Guernica based on the Picasso painting. Basque nationalists advocate that the painting be brought to the town, as can be seen in the slogan underneath.

Guernica quickly became a world-renowned symbol of civilian suffering resulting from conflict and inspired Pablo Picasso to adapt one of his existing commissions into Guernica . [69] The Spanish Republican Government had commissioned a work from him for the Spanish pavilion at the Paris International Exposition. Though he accepted the invitation to display a piece, he remained uninspired until he heard of the bombing of Guernica. Before the bombing of Guernica took place, Picasso never cared much for anything to do with politics. Once Picasso heard the news he changed his commissioned work for Spain into a reflection on the massacre. [70]

Picasso began the painting on 11 May 1937, working on a piece of unbleached muslin (349 cm x 776 cm). Since the work was so large, Picasso had to use a ladder and a long-handled brush to reach the furthest corners of the canvas. He spent over two months creating Guernica. He used only black and white paint to invoke the truth-telling authority of documentary photography. "The protest is found in what has happened to the bodies, the hands, the soles of the feet, the horse's tongue, the mother's breasts, the eyes in the head—the imaginative equivalent of what happened to them in the flesh. We are made to feel their pain with our own eyes." [70]

The display of Picasso's work at (Republican) Spain's Pavilion during the 1937 World's Fair reflected the effect on public consciousness. The painting, later adopted as a symbol of Basque nationalism during the Spanish transition to democracy, was displayed near Mercury Fountain, an overtly political work by Alexander Calder that incorporated mercury from the mines of Almadén. Today it resides in Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. A tapestry copy of Picasso's Guernica is displayed on the wall of the United Nations building in New York City, at the entrance to the Security Council room. It was placed there as a reminder of the horrors of war.

René Iché

Immediately after the bombing French sculpture René Iché created Guernica , one of his most violent and personal sculptures. He was shocked and horrified by the enormous civilian massacre and worked endlessly on the plaster statue. Iché used his daughter to model a child's body. He refused to display his work because of the violence. Just after his death an exhibition was held to commemorate the artist. This piece was displayed for a short time, then returned to his family. [71]

German apology

Recrimination for the activities of the Condor Legion and shame at the involvement of German citizens in the bombing of Guernica surfaced following German reunification in the 1990s. In 1997, the 60th anniversary of Operation Rügen, then German President Roman Herzog wrote to survivors apologizing on behalf of the German people and state for Germany's role in the Civil War in general. Herzog said he wished to extend "a hand of friendship and reconciliation" on behalf of all German citizens. [72] This sentiment was later ratified by members of the German Parliament who went on to legislate in 1998 for the removal of all former Legion members' names from associated German military bases.

70th anniversary

On the 70th anniversary of the bombing, the president of the Basque Parliament met with politicians, Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, and deputies from Hiroshima, Volgograd, Pforzheim, Dresden, Warsaw, and Oswiecim, as well as several survivors from Guernica itself. During the meeting they showed images and film clips of the bombing, took time to remember the 250 dead, and read the Guernica Manifesto for Peace, pleading that Guernica become a "World Capital for Peace". [29] [73]


Gernika, The Story , 2007 documentary directed by Alberto Rojo

2016 film

The 2016 film Guernica [74] leads up to and culminates in the bombing of Guernica, set against the background of personalities involved in press coverage of the war.

Bombing of Jaén and Bombing of Córdoba

The attack on Jaen is sometimes falsely attributed to the Condor Legion during a practice exercise in preparation for Guernica. That was not the case. It was executed by Spanish pilots flying German planes. On 1 April 1937, at 17:20 PM, the Spanish city of Jaén, one of the few areas in Andalucia under Republican control at that point of the Civil War, was bombed by 6 German bombers(Junker 52). The bombers made a single raid over Jaen, in which killed an estimate of 150 people. The order for the Jaén bombing, dated on the same 1 April between the times of the attack on Jaen and the time of the Bombing of Cordoba, to which it is believed to be a direct response. It was written and signed by General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano is still preserved in the Spanish National Archives [75] [76]

On 1 April 1937, at noon, the Andalucian city of Córdoba, under Rebel control at the time, had been heavily bombarded by seven bombers (Tupolev Katiuska) under command of the Republican Government. The civil population was warned about the bombing. The main target of the attack was the General Military Hospital in the city. It is estimated that 40 people were killed by the attack, about half of them in the hospital. [77]

Combined, both attacks equate most estimates for Guernica. (That same day at 20:00, the Republican government signed an order to execute "as many National Prisoners as people died in the Jaen bombing" This was clearly a punishment action. The order was carried through. If those executed are taken into account as victims of the bombings the bombing of Jaen doubles its number of victims).

Bombing of Durango

This is considered the clearest precedent for Guernica. It was perpetrated on 31 March 1937, by the Italian Air Forces in a three-raid pattern, almost exact to the one observed in Guernica. It killed an estimate of 250 people and destroyed most of the city.

Bombings of Madrid

Alfredo Kindelán considers that both Guernica and Durago were "practice drills" in the development of more effective bombing strategies to use on Madrid. The city of Madrid suffered a similar attack prior to the bombing of Guernica, and various after. Madrid was presenting a fierce resistance against the National troops that surpassed all of Franco's expectations and forced him to completely modify his attack strategy. A series of air bombings to demoralize the population were ordered both before and after Guernica. It has also been suggested that the war chronicle Picasso read to inspire himself to paint Guernica was actually a chronicle written by Louis Delaprée about the bombing of Madrid on December 1936.

Comparison to subsequent historical events

Bombing of Dresden

On 13 February 2003, during the commemoration of the 58th anniversary of the Bombing of Dresden, inhabitants of Dresden, Germany, including survivors of the firestorm of 1945, joined together with witnesses of the bombing of Guernica to issue an appeal to the people of the world: [78]

As our television sets show bombers preparing for war against Iraq, we survivors of Guernica and Dresden recall our own helplessness and horror when we were flung into the inferno of bombing—we saw people killed. Suffocated. Crushed. Incinerated. Mothers trying to protect their children with only their bodies. Old people with no strength left to flee from the flames. These pictures are still alive in our memory, and our accounts capture indelibly what we went through.

For decades we—and survivors from many other nations—have been scarred by the horror, loss and injuries we experienced in the wars of the 20th century. Today we see that the beginnings of the 21st century are also marked by suffering and destruction. On behalf of all the victims of war throughout the world we express our sympathy and solidarity with all those affected by the terror of September 11 in the US and the war in Afghanistan.

But is that very suffering now also to be inflicted upon the people of Iraq? Must thousands more die in a rain of bombs, must cities and villages be destroyed and cultural treasures obliterated? [79] [80]

Bombing of Hiroshima

On 26 April 2007, Dr. Tadatoshi Akiba, Mayor of Hiroshima and President of Mayors for Peace compared the experience of Guernica to Hiroshima: [81]

Human beings have often sought to give concrete form to our powerful collective longing for peace. After World War I, that longing led to the League of Nations and numerous rules and taboos designed to govern warfare itself. Of these, the most important was the proscription against attacking and killing civilian non-combatants even in times of war. However, the second half of the twentieth century has seen most of those taboos broken. Guernica was the point of departure, and Hiroshima is the ultimate symbol. We must find ways to communicate to future generations the history of horror that began with Guernica....
In this sense, the leadership of those here in Guernica who seek peace and have worked hard to bring about this memorial ceremony is profoundly meaningful. The solidarity we feel today derives from our shared experience of the horror of war, and this solidarity can truly lead us toward a world beyond war.

See also

Related Research Articles

This is a list of aviation-related events from 1937:

The Condor Legion was a unit composed of military personnel from the air force and army of Nazi Germany, which served with the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War of July 1936 to March 1939. The Condor Legion developed methods of strategic bombing which were used widely in the Second World War shortly afterwards. The bombing of Guernica was the most infamous operation carried out by the Condor Legion. Hugo Sperrle commanded the unit's aircraft formations and Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma commanded the ground element.

Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen German military officer and aviator

Wolfram "Ulf" Karl Ludwig Moritz Hermann Freiherr von Richthofen was a German field marshal of the Luftwaffe during World War II. Born in 1895 into a family of the Prussian nobility, Richthofen grew up in prosperous surroundings. At the age of eighteen, after leaving school, he opted to join the German Army rather than choose an academic career, and joined the army's cavalry arm in 1913.

Corpo Truppe Volontarie Italian expeditionary force

The Corps of Volunteer Troops was a Fascist Italian expeditionary force which was sent to Spain to support the Nationalist forces under General Francisco Franco against the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War, 1936–39.

1936 in the Spanish Civil War chronology of events of the year 1936 in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39)

The Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) broke out with a military uprising in Morocco on July 17, triggered by events in Madrid. Within days, Spain was divided in two: a "Republican" or "Loyalist" Spain consisting of the Second Spanish Republic, and a "Nationalist" Spain under the insurgent generals, and, eventually, under the leadership of General Francisco Franco.

In 1937, the Nationalists, under the leadership of Francisco Franco began to establish their dominance. An important element of support was their greater access to foreign aid, with their German and Italian allies helping considerably. This came just as the French ceased aid to the Republicans, who continued, however, to be able to buy arms from the Soviet Union. The Republican side suffered from serious divisions among the various communist and anarchist groupings within it, and the communists undermined much of the anarchists' organisation.

George Steer British journalist

George Lowther Steer was a South African-born British journalist, author and war correspondent who reported on wars preceding World War II, especially the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and the Spanish Civil War. During those wars he was employed by The Times, and his eye-witness reports did much to alert western nations of war crimes committed by the Italians in Ethiopia and by the Germans in Spain, although little was done to prevent them by the League of Nations. He returned to Ethiopia after the world war started and helped the campaign defeat the Italians and restore Hailie Selassie to the throne.

Spanish Air Force Air warfare branch of Spains armed forces

The Spanish Air Force (SPAF) is the aerial branch of the Spanish Armed Forces.

Siege of Madrid Siege that was part of the Spanish Civil War

The Siege of Madrid was a two and a half year siege of the Spanish capital city of Madrid, during the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939. The city, besieged from October 1936, eventually fell to the Francoist armies on 28 March 1939. Madrid was held by various forces loyal to the Spanish Republic and was besieged and subject to aerial bombardment by the rebel faction under General Francisco Franco. The Battle of Madrid in November 1936 saw the most intense fighting in and around the city when the Nationalists made their most determined attempt to take the Republican capital.

War in the North

The War in the North, in the Spanish Civil War was the campaign in which the Nationalist forces defeated and occupied the parts of northern Spain that remained loyal to the Republican government. The campaign included several separate battles. The Biscay Campaign resulted in the loss of the part of the Basque Country still held by the Republic and Bilbao, the greatest Spanish industrial center. This part of the campaign saw the Bombing of Guernica and Durango. The Battle of Santander caused the loss of the province of Santander in Cantabrian Castile for the Republic. The Battle of El Mazuco lead to the capture of the Republican-controlled part of Asturias and the fall of Gijón, the Republic's last stronghold in the North, to the Nationalists. The campaign ended on October 21, 1937 with a decisive and total Nationalist victory.

Aviazione Legionaria 1936-1939 air warfare branch of the Italian expeditionary forces in the Spanish Civil War

The Legionary Air Force was an expeditionary corps from the Italian Royal Air Force. It was set up in 1936 and sent to provide logistical and tactical support to the Nationalist faction after the Spanish coup of July 1936 marked the onset of the Spanish Civil War.

Spanish Civil War War between the Republicans and the Nationalists in Spain from 1936 to 1939

The Spanish Civil War took place from 1936 to 1939. Republicans loyal to the elected, left-leaning Second Spanish Republic, in alliance with the Anarchists and Communists, fought against a revolt by the Nationalists, an alliance of Falangists, Monarchists, Carlists, conservatives and Catholics, led by a military clique among whom General Francisco Franco soon achieved a preponderant role. Due to the international political climate at the time, the war had many facets, and different views saw it as class struggle, a war of religion, a struggle between dictatorship and republican democracy, between revolution and counterrevolution, between fascism and communism. It has been frequently called the "dress rehearsal" for World War II.

German involvement in the Spanish Civil War

German involvement in the Spanish Civil War commenced with the outbreak of war in July 1936, with Adolf Hitler immediately sending in powerful air and armored units to assist General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist forces. The Soviet Union sent in smaller forces to assist the Republican government, while Britain and France and two dozen other countries set up an embargo on any munitions or soldiers into Spain. Nazi Germany also signed the embargo but simply ignored it.

Biscay Campaign

The Biscay Campaign was an offensive of the Spanish Civil War which lasted from 31 March to 1 July 1937. 50,000 men of the Eusko Gudarostea met 65,000 men of the insurgent forces. After heavy combats the Nationalist forces with a crushing material superiority managed to occupy the city of Bilbao and the Biscay province.

The Bombing of Jaén was an aerial attack on the city of Jaén on April 1, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, by the Condor Legion of Nazi Germany, who fought for the rebels. The bombing was ordered by the General Queipo de Llano, as retaliation for a republican air raid on the city of Córdoba.

Bombing of Durango

The Bombing of Durango took place on 31 March 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. On 31 March 1937 the Nationalists started their offensive against the Republican held province of Biscay. As part of the offensive the Aviazione Legionaria and the Legion Condor bombed Durango, a town of 10,000 inhabitants that was also a key road and railway junction behind the frontline. Around 250 people are believed to have died in the bombing.

Bombing of La Garriga battle

The Bombing of La Garriga where a series of Nationalist air raids which took place at La Garriga, Barcelona province in Catalonia between the 28 and 29 January 1939 during the Spanish Civil War. At least 13 civilians were killed in the bombings.

<i>Guernica</i> (2016 film) 2016 film by Koldo Serra

Guernica is a 2016 Spanish-American war romance drama film directed by Koldo Serra, starring James D'Arcy, María Valverde and Jack Davenport. It is the first feature film made about the 1937 bombing of Guernica.


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  62. See available here.
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Further reading