The Bombing of Guernica . The bombing of Guernica (26 April 1937) was an aerial attack on the Basque town of Guernica, Spain, causing widespread destruction and civilian deaths during the Spanish Civil War. The raid by planes of the German Luftwaffe "Condor Legion" and the Italian Fascist Aviazione Legionaria was called Operation Rügen.
The bombing is considered one of the first raids in the history of modern military aviation on a defenseless civilian population, although Madrid had been bombed many times previously.
The number of victims of the attack is still disputed; the Basque government reported 1,654 people killed, although modern figures suggest between 126 (later revised by the authors of the study to 153) to 400 civilians died. Russian archives reveal 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.
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 and leftists, 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.
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 defences, and it was thought that no air cover could be expected due to recent losses of the Republican Air Force.
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.
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.
It has been said that 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 Basques. 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 it could be overthrown 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.
Condor Legion persuaded Franco to send troops to go north and to be led by General Emilio Mola. 31 March 1937, Mola attacked Vizcaya province, as well as bombing Durango by the Condor Legion. Republicans put up a tough fight against the German troops, but eventually were forced back. Many refugees traveled 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 mighty blow on Guernica. Resistance against this attack was useless, to all Basques they should surrender and their lives maybe spared.
To meet these objectives, two Heinkel He 111s, one Dornier Do 17, eighteen Ju 52 Behelfsbomber, and three Italian SM.79s (Corpo Truppe Volontarie) were assigned for the mission. These were armed with medium high explosive bombs (250 kg), light explosive bombs (50 kg) and incendiaries (1 kg). The ordnance load for the twenty four bombers was twenty-two 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 personal and material 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.
Wave one arrived over Guernica around 1630 hrs. A Dornier Do 17, coming from the south, dropped approximately twelve 50-kilogram bombs.
The three Italian SM.79s had taken off from Soria at 1530 hrs with orders to "bomb the road and bridge to the east of Guernica, in order to block the enemy retreat" during wave two. Their orders explicitly stated not to bomb the town itself. During a single sixty second pass over the town, from north to south, the SM.79's dropped thirty-six light explosive bombs (50 kg). 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.
Waves three through five of the first attack then occurred, ending around 1800 hrs. The third wave consisted of a Heinkel He 111 escorted by five Aviazione Legionaria Fiat fighters led by Capitano Corrado Ricci. Waves four and five 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.
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