[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

The Nationalist version of Guernica -- that it wasn't bombed by fascist aircraft, but instead set alight by the Basque defenders themselves -- was not widely accepted at the time, but for decades afterwards it was still plausible enough for some people to believe. As late as 1969, letters like this could appear in The Times without comment:

In The Times of June 26, which I read in Paris, PHS repeats a hoary old myth and invents a new one. Not even Picasso, to my knowledge, has accused General Franco's forces of bombing Guernica and causing the deaths of two thousand people. The usual myth is that the Nazis were responsible. This view, however, is incompatible with the evidence of the German Foreign Ministry Archives and with other evidence now available, some of which I analysed in my book on Franco.

There was, in fact, a minor Nationalist air raid, in which the targets were a railway station and an arms factory. Some German bombs may also have fallen on the town. But the massive destruction was caused by systematic dynamiting of one quarter of Guernica -- and one quarter only -- by the retreating Republicans.

Ironically, Picasso's masterpiece probably celebrated a non-event.1

This was written by Brian Crozier, author of Franco: A Biographical History (1967), among other works.2

Such views are now impossible to sustain; we now know that the raid was indeed conducted by the Luftwaffe's Condor Legion, Germany's main contribution to Franco's war effort. I'm not sure when exactly, but at some point the diaries and reports of Lieutenant Colonel (later Field Marshal) Wolfram von Richthofen became available. Von Richthofen was the chief of staff of the Condor Legion.3 And it was he who planned the Condor Legion's operations, including the attack on Guernica.
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  1. The Times, 9 July 1969, p. 11. 

  2. I haven't heard of Crozier before (although he was born in FNQ); he seems to have had an active career as a globe-trotting conservative pundit. I wonder if he ever retracted the claims he made in The Times

  3. He was also a distant cousin of the Red Baron, and was himself a fighter ace in the First World War. 

Found via Military History Carnival #2, an interesting post by Alan Baumler at Frog in a Well: China on airmindedness in China in the 1930s. If I had to compare it to another country, it would probably be Russia, where aviation was also part of a modernization effort. But something Alan mentions reminds me of a couple of British parallels:

The Nationalists raised $ 300,000 from the public to purchase planes, including one paid for by the Tianchu glutamate factory that had the name of the company on the wings. I assume this was just for the publicity shot, and that it did not fly into battle with an advertisement on its wings, but it is still a rather remarkable example of commerce and nation-building going together.

This of course sounds very similar to the Second World War Spitfire Fund, where companies, towns and individuals could contribute money towards the cost of a Spitfire or other aircraft for the RAF. (The idea seems to have started with the Nizam of Hyderabad, who paid for a whole squadron. But maybe the Chinese were first?) £5000 paid for one Spitfire, though in reality this was less than half the total cost of production; at least 1500 Spitfires were subsidised in this way. The names of the donors were written on the side of the presentation aircraft so you could say they did go into combat with advertisements, though hardly big enough for anyone to notice!

But I know of one other aeroplane which did indeed go to war with very noticeable advertising under the wings. Michael Paris notes that in 1914 the RFC was short of aircraft, and so it requisitioned a number of privately-owned aeroplanes. One of these was the Daily Mail Blériot, which 'flew several reconnaissance missions in France with "The Daily Mail" painted under the wings'.1 I think this is the one (this 1913 photograph is taken from The Early Birds of Aviation):

Daily Mail Blériot

How very clever of the airminded Lord Northcliffe! The number of new Daily Mail subscriptions taken out by German soldiers is not recorded, however.

Update: see, I told you it reminded me of Russia!

  1. Michael Paris, Winged Warfare: The Literature and Theory of Aerial Warfare in Britain, 1859-1917 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1992), 230. 


The A-bomb won:

Plumbbob/Stokes and blimp

I wouldn't have thought it was necessary to detonate a 19 kiloton nuclear weapon to see what it would do to an airship, but that's just what the US Department of Energy did on 7 August 1957. Well, to be fair, the primary purpose was probably to test a prototype of the W30 nuclear warhead; the airship thing was just a bonus. The test, codenamed Stokes, was part of Operation Plumbbob, a series of 29 above-ground detonations carried out at the Nevada Test Site between May and October 1957. Statistically speaking, the radiation released into the atmosphere from Plumbbob would be expected to have caused 1900 civilian deaths from thyroid cancer -- a small price to pay for the knowledge gained, I think we'd all agree.
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I ordered these before I realised just how broke I'll be after the UK trip. Oy vey ...

David Clarke and Andy Roberts. Flying Saucerers: A Social History of Ufology. Loughborough: Alternative Albion, 2007. A social history of British ufology, at any rate. Did you know that Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding believed that UFOs were interplanetary spacecraft? Well, you do now.

Stanley Cohen. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. Abingdon: Routledge, 2002. Third edition. Classic.

Beau Grosscup. Strategic Terror: The Politics and Ethics of Aerial Bombardment. London and New York: Zed Books, 2006. Rather polemical, and I don't like his reliance upon Trenchard and Liddell Hart as representative of British airpower advocates. But it seems to have more theoretical approach to the subject than most, which is kind of interesting in itself; and it was cheap!

Ross McKibbin. Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Another nice, fat social/cultural history which I'll apparently never have time to read. Didn't realise the author was Australian.

Ian Patterson. Guernica and Total War. London: Profile Books, 2007. This has already been mentioned here a couple of times in recent days; uses Guernica as a starting point to explore total air war, via the fears of bombing as expressed in popular literature. Unlike Grosscup (above), it looks like he's read all the right books!

1 Comment

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

News of the bombing of Guernica outraged opinion in Britain, as elsewhere in the world. Or so the simple version of the story goes -- the truth seems to be a little more complicated than that.

A leading article in The Times, on the same page as George Steer's account of the raid, called it 'a tragic story',1 noting that there was practically no resistance from the town and next to no legitimate military objectives.

The planning of the attack was murderously logical and efficient. Its aim was unquestionably to terrorize the Basque Government into surrender by showing them what Bilbao may soon expect. Yet, so far from having that effect, it may even defeat its object. It may merely inspire the proud democrats of Vizcaya with a passionate determination to fight to the end, and it may well shock the patriotism of the other half of the Basque nation which is fighting on the insurgent side.2

But that's about all -- after discussing the importance of Guernica in Basque culture, the leader then goes on to discuss the military situation in northern Spain. It doesn't dwell particularly on whether the raid was legitimate or not, and it seems to me that the tone is less condemnatory than that of its correspondent, Steer.3 This might be because The Times, a politically conservative newspaper, was not entirely unsympathetic to Franco's Nationalists. Indeed, since The Times supported appeasement it was concerned not to upset the Germans: a week after Guernica its editor, Geoffrey Dawson, boasted that he 'had done the impossible night after night to keep the paper from hurting their susceptibilities'.4 However, the Manchester Guardian, well to the left of The Times, was also slow to anger. It too published an account of the bombardment on 28 April, the same day as The Times. But it did not mention it in an editorial until two days later, where readers were enjoined not to let 'the peculiar horror and ruthlessness of the recent raid on Guernica'5 blind them to the senselessness of the artillery bombardment of Madrid which had been going on for the last three weeks. Again, politics may be at play here: the Basques were not fighting (and dying) to defend socialism in Spain, but their own autonomy. The suffering of the Madrilenos, living as they did in the capital of the Republic, could more plausibly be understood as part of a straightforward left-right struggle.
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  1. The Times, 28 April 1937, p. 17. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Having said that, I notice that Ian Patterson in his new book on Guernica describes The Times's editorial as 'powerful'. But he's evidently looked at a broader cross-section of press opinion than I have, and when compared with the denialist responses of the pro-Franco periodicals like the Tablet, it probably does seem powerful. Ian Patterson, Guernica and Total War (London: Profile Books, 2007), 31. 

  4. Quoted in Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2006), 245. 

  5. Manchester Guardian, 30 April 1937, p. 10. 


As I mentioned in the previous post I plan to attend some conferences while I'm overseas. The first is Air Power, Insurgency and the 'War on Terror' which is being held at Cranwell, the Royal Air Force College, on 22 and 23 August 2007. I submitted an abstract for this, which wasn't accepted -- which I don't actually mind as it would have required a fair bit of research on topics I wouldn't otherwise have done, no bad thing in itself but I don't have the time at the moment! And it's a very good programme anyway, with some top-notch names and several papers at least touching on British air control policies in the interwar period.

The second is Politics of Fear in the Cold War, to be held at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research (Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung), 5-7 September. In many ways the era of the knock-out blow was just a foretaste of the atomic age, and the parallels between the two is a subject that fascinates me. No programme is available yet, in fact no information beyond the call for papers, but just from that alone it looks like a lot of fun.

So that's the listening part ... what about the talking? Well, I'm scheduled to give a talk at a summer school on war and society which is being held at Queen Mary, University of London from 30 July to 2 August. I can't tell you the title of the summer school because I don't know myself :) But I'll be talking about my thesis as a whole. As part of my preparation for this, I'm giving a couple of presentations in my department -- a Monday night postgraduate seminar on 21 May, which will also be a general overview, and a Work In Progress Day talk on 31 May, probably on defence panics. (That's assuming I get around to letting the WIPD organisers know about this ...)

Finally, an event which I sadly won't be able to attend: Graffiti Day at Birkbeck College on 4 May (yes, this Friday). Paul Hodges, who kindly dropped me a line with some accommodation advice, will be giving a talk entitled "Written on the bomb: munitions graffiti of modern warfare" -- things like this, I imagine. That's the only item on the programme to do with military history, but the rest look interesting too, so if you're in London this Friday and have the time, it might be worth turning up.


I'm planning a trip to the UK1 in the July/August/September period. I'll be based in London for a couple of months or so, and aside from taking in a conference or two, will be spending much of my time at British Library Newspapers at Colindale (yes, I know ... cue the violins!); other places of interest include BL at St Pancras and the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at KCL.

So, since a number of my readers are familiar with London, here's my "web log beg" (somebody needs to invent a word for that): does anyone have any recommendations as to where to stay? Somewhere appropriate to a PhD student doing research, cheapish but not nasty, ideally available over the whole period, has at least some form of net access, and so on. When I've traveled within Australia for similar purposes I've stayed at university residential colleges, which (obviously) cater for students and are conveniently empty in the summer, but I don't know if that's the same over there. Are there any good websites to try? (I know of Gumtree.) Also, I've never been to London and have only a relatively vague idea of its geography, especially in terms of getting around on public transport, so advice as to which parts of London I should be looking at would be appreciated as well.

Please note that I'm not trying to scunge (as we like to say in Australia) a sofa or a spare room from somebody! I actually need somewhere that can give me an indicative quote, and somewhere that can do that in the next week at that, as I have to include it in my application for travel funding. Speaking of which, if somebody could explain to me why I have to have my application to study abroad approved BEFORE I apply for travel funding, and not AFTER or at least concurrently, and why they don't tell you that it takes 5 working days to process said application before you hand it in, I'd be most grateful.

But I'll be more grateful for any advice on London accommodation, or anything else a visiting scholar ought to know :) Thanks in advance!

  1. I've noticed that whenever I'm talking or writing about "that place" in a historical context, I call it "Britain", but as a place in the contemporary world which can be traveled to, it's "the UK". I wonder why that is. 

Mark Connelly. Reaching for the Stars: A New History of Bomber Command in World War II. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001. Since I had this on semi-permanent loan from the library, it seemed only logical to buy my own copy. Only partly an operational history, so not the place to turn to for a bomb-by-bomb account; it's more concerned with the big picture, including the reactions to area bombing by the British press and public, during and since the war. (NB. Connelly's latest book has just been reviewed at Trench Fever.)


[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon [26 April 1937] by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers and Heinkel fighters, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000lb. downwards and, it is calculated, more than 3,000 two-pounder aluminium incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machine-gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields.1

Today is the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Guernica (in Basque, Gernika) by German and Italian aircraft during the Spanish Civil War. Even after all the horrors that came after, the very name is still a by-word for terror and barbarism. The story was broken by George Steer, correspondent for The Times, which published his account on 28 April 1937 under the headlines "The tragedy of Guernica. Town destroyed in air attack".
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  1. The Times, 28 April 1937, p. 17. All quotes taken from this source.