The Condor Legion and the "Other Guernicas"
Repository: Sabino Arana Fundazio, Bilbao, Spain
Fond or Collection
Repository and Location
Sabino Arana Fundazio, Bilbao, Spain
Date Created: 1937
Extent: 1 item
Geographic Region: Gernika, Biscay, Spain
On April 26, 1937 Guernica was destroyed in an air attack by the Nazi Condor Legion with the collaboration of the Italian fascist Aviazione Legionaria. Home to the Casa de Juntas, the traditional meeting place of Basque assemblies, and the tree that symbolizes the national freedoms of Euzkadi, this provincial town held great symbolic significance for Basque nationalism. That day, as part of Franco’s offensive in the north, several waves of Junkers 52, Heinkel 111, Dornier 17 and Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 bombers accompanied by Heinkel 51 and Messerschmitt 109 fighters, left their bases in Vitoria, Logroño and Soria, attacked the town, set it on fire, and strafed civilians on the ground. The town center was razed and 85 percent of the 271 buildings were destroyed. Four days later, Condor Legion commander Wolfram von Richthofen wrote in his journal: “Guernica… literally leveled to the ground. Attack carried out with 250 kg and incendiary bombs. – about one third of the latter. When the first Junker squadron arrived, there was smoke already everywhere; nobody could identify the targets of the roads, bridges and suburbs so they just dropped everything right into the centre…. The materials of the houses: tile roofs, wooden porches and half-timbering resulted in complete annihilation…. Bomb craters can still be seen in the streets. Simply terrific…. Complete technical success of our 250s and one kilogram incendiaries.”In contrast, neither the weapons factories nor the Errenteria bridge were attacked, clear evidence that the operation was directed against civilian targets. which makes clear the will of the attackers to act on civilian targets. It was a rehearsal for the fire-bombing of similar sized towns in Poland and Belgium in a future war.
According to the most recent research, the attack on Guernica claimed some 300 lives, many of them in a single bomb shelter that was hit. At the time, the Basque government estimated the number of dead at 2,000. The topic continues to be controversial. The exact number of deaths will never be known with certainty given that the day of the bombing was ‘market day’ and many non-residents were visiting the town. Together with the fact that the total removal of the ruins was not completed until 1941, this prevented the identification of many of the remains that were appearing.
Knowledge of what happened in Guernica spread rapidly and international condemnation followed suit. The Basque government denounced it and several foreign journalists who were in Bilbao visited the ruins. Among them was George Steer from the London Times, whose evidence of the German authorship of the attack and rebutting of the Francoist denials of responsibility achieved wide circulation. The bombing of Guernica became a symbol of anti-fascism. Pablo Picasso made it the subject of the allegorical painting that was exhibited in the Spanish pavilion of the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris and has since gained worldwide fame.
The bombing of Guernica overshadowed other aerial assaults carried out by the Francoists and their allies in the Basque Country which also caused great destruction and mortality. On March 31, 1937, the Italian Aviazione Legionaria attacked Durango and Elorrio, causing 361 deaths and hundreds of injuries, as well as the complete or partial destruction of more than 300 buildings, including six religious buildings in the first town alone. Other notable bombings were those of Otxandio on July 22, 1936, and in Durango on September 25 of that same year.