Spain and the aeroplane

SM.81, c. 1936, with CR.32 escorts

Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 bomber over Spain, c. 1936, with Fiat CR.32 fighter escorts. Image source: Wikipedia.

Exactly seventy years ago, in late November and early December 1936, Madrid was being bombed. The way Antony Beevor describes it, it was the first attempt at something like a knock-out blow:

The nationialists' failure to break through on 19 November made Franco change his strategy. He could not risk any more of his best troops in fruitless assaults now that a quick victory looked much more difficult. So, for the first time in history, a capital city came under intense air as well as artillery bombardment. All residential areas except the fashionable Salamanca district were bombed in an attempt to break the morale of the civilian population. The Italian Aviazione Legionaria and the Luftwaffe conducted a methodical experiment with their Savoia 81s and Junkers 52s. The bombing did not, however, break morale as intended; on the contrary, it increased the defiance of the population. In London, Prince Otto von Bismarck, the German chargé d'affaires, derided British fears of air attacks 'since you see what little harm they have done in Madrid'.1

My first instinct was to scoff. The first capital to undergo intense aerial bombardment? London was bombed in 1915; Paris in 1914. But the key word is 'intense'. In the First World War, the only period when London was bombed repeatedly was at the end of September and start of October 1917, when Gothas and Zeppelins attacked on six nights out of nine. It sounds like the raids on Madrid were much more frequent than that, and they were certainly heavier: the Condor Legion dropped 36 tons of bombs on 4 December alone, about a tenth of the total dropped on Britain during the whole First World War. Casualties don't seem to have been markedly greater, though: nearly 100 deaths in those six London raids, maybe twice that in the Madrid ones (though contemporary reports gave higher estimates).

On balance, Beevor's claim is probably a fair one. But regardless, the Spanish Civil War was certainly hugely important as far as the development of military aviation is concerned. Whereas Lenin had arrived at Finland Station by steam train, Franco now flew about in a Dragon Rapide. Famously, Franco's rebellion was assisted in its very early stages by a strategic airlift across the Straits of Gibraltar (in German aircraft) of the battle-hardened Army of Africa (though Beevor argues that this was not decisive, as the troops would have been ferried across by sea if air transport had not been available). Close air support played a critical role in many ground battles, while overhead, ideas about aerial combat in the age of fast monoplanes were put to the test. Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union all got a chance to try out their latest aircraft in field conditions, including the German Me 109, He 111, and Ju 87. And, as well as Madrid, many cities, towns and villages were bombed throughout the war, often in relation to a ground offensive rather than as a pure strategic bombardment. Some incidents stand out for their ferocity: Guernica, of course, in April 1937, but also another Basque town, Durango, the previous month; Alcañiz in Aragon, March 1938 (which Beevor describes as Italy's Guernica); and Barcelona, also in March 1938.

This last was chronicled by the British journalist John Langdon-Davies, a correspondent for the News Chronicle, in his book Air Raid: The Technique of Silent Approach, High Explosive, Panic. By his account, some 3000 people were killed in the raids of 16, 17 and 18 March 1938, with 5000 seriously wounded. Below is a photograph from Air Raid showing a Barcelona street scene after one raid -- the only exception to his stated avoidance of showing picture after picture of dead bodies:

Barcelona, c. 1938

Langdon-Davies claimed -- I don't know if it is actually true, but others at the time said the same thing -- that the Italian raiders had switched off their engines some distance out from Barcelona, glided in, dropped their bombs and then started up their engines again to make good their escape. The point of this was to minimise the warning time given by the acoustic detectors which ringed the city, giving fighters little chance to intercept and civilians little time to get to shelters -- thereby dramatically increasing panic. The bombers also returned at frequent intervals in order to maximise the psychological distress:

In short, twenty-six minutes of visits from half a dozen bombers themselves scarcely in danger destroyed the whole mental life of a million and a half people for forty hours.2

Ultimately, Langdon-Davies believed that such tactics might well be employed against the British people, and this was the point of his book, for he believed Britain's ARP measures were out-of-date in light of the "silent raids" in particular and the Spanish experience more generally.

James Corum has argued that the RAF, like other western air forces, learned little from the air war in Spain.3 It does seem that British observers went out of their way to deny the general ineffectiveness of morale bombing and of unescorted bombers. For example, Wing Commander R. V. Goddard, who had himself travelled to Spain on a fact-finding mission, reported that attacks on one factory had affected neither production nor worker morale, despite the destruction of their homes and lives. But he explained this away as follows:

[I]t must be hard for people of a gay temperament to take a morbid view of things in the halcyon sunshine which seems to prevail nine days out of ten in Spain. The shattered steel works at Sagunto would have seemed very depressing in the wet and gloom of Sheffield, but in Spain it was not so.4

So perhaps global warming will finally make Britain safe against the knock-out blow!

More seriously, I wonder if this picture of British blindness isn't somewhat exaggerated. Malcolm Smith has argued that a December 1937 report of Sir Thomas Inskip, Minister for Defence Co-ordination (infamously, amusingly and I think unfairly likened to Caligula's horse by Cato in Guilty Men) forced a shift in emphasis in home defence: away from Bomber Command as a deterrent and towards Fighter Command as a shield. According to Smith, this was partly for financial reasons but mainly because several years of expanding the RAF's bomber force had failed to prevent Luftwaffe expansion.5 It doesn't seem that Inskip referred to evidence from the Spanish Civil War, but I find it interesting that around this same time, books on aerial warfare written for the public start to display much more scepticism about the possibility of a knock-out blow. Partly this was due to the presumed security afforded by ARP; partly due to the resilience of Spaniards under air attack; but most of all, it seems to me, is the upgrading of the prospects of the fighter based on evidence from Spain (and now also China). As Major-General Henry Rowan-Robinson noted, 'Recent information, however, though nebulous in the extreme, indicates that [fighters] are now in the ascendant'.6 Perhaps Inskip was influenced towards knock-out blow scepticism by the Spanish example, too -- though if the famous bout of trench-digging in London parks in September 1938 is any guide, the British public was not.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

  1. Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006), 181. []
  2. John Langdon-Davies, Air Raid: The Technique of Silent Approach, High Explosive, Panic (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1938), 24. Emphasis in original. []
  3. James S. Corum, "The Spanish Civil War: lessons learned and not learned by the Great Powers", Journal of Military History 62 (1998), 313-34. []
  4. Quoted in Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Strategic Air Warfare: The Evolution and Reality of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002), 117. []
  5. Malcolm Smith, British Air Strategy between the Wars (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 180-91. []
  6. Henry Rowan-Robinson, Imperial Defence: A Problem in Four Dimensions (London: Frederick Muller, 1938), 149. []

18 thoughts on “Spain and the aeroplane

  1. Yes, Auntie Ju really started life as a bomber-hybrid, a stopgap weapon for the Luftwaffe while the Dornier Company was working out the kinks with the Do 17 and its cousins. It could carry over 3,000 Ibs of bombs, apparently.

  2. Kurt Niehaus

    Also remember, London was around 8 times as large as Madrid. So the intensity would have seemed much higher than the intensity of the attacks over the much larger London.

  3. Post author

    Excellent point, Kurt, I hadn't thought of that!

    Yes, as Alan says, the Ju 52 was a stopgap bomber. It was also used in the Polish campaign, which I think was its last hurrah as a combat aircraft. There was an idea around in the 1920s and 1930s that airliners were easy to turn into decent bombers, as I've discussed previously, but this use of the Ju 52 was less about that and more about the Luftwaffe's need for anything they could lay their hands on for the shop window.

  4. Given that Republican air opposition was nonexistent at first, until the delivery of Polikarpov-26 (Spanish name: Rata) fighters from the Soviet Union (and a few British and French types), Ju-52s were a pretty good idea - cheap, carry a large load, slow enough to be a good CAS aircraft and can be used for airlift.

    The Kondors' air wing started off as a fleet of Ju52 bomber/transports and Heinkel 51 biplane fighter-bombers in the CAS role, and later received a small number of early Bf109s, more for operational evaluation than as a serious reinforcement. Ju87 Stukas came later, in some numbers.

    Lessons learnt by the wise included the potential of close air support - the Germans especially worked hard at refining forward air controller procedures and tactics - and the importance of infrastructure. The Republicans' one unequivocal victory after Madrid, the whipping of the Italians at Guadalajara, was among other things a success for the Republican air force - largely because they had the nearest hard runway, and could therefore operate despite the heavy rain that turned the Fascist forward airfields to a mudbath.

  5. Kurt Niehaus

    If I recall correctly, the JU-52 was also used because the "private" airlines were allowed to have them, but there was no legal Luftwaffe.
    Something else I came across recently, the P3 Orion, an Anti-sub aircraft, was developed from an airliner. Not exactly a bomber, but I think it can carry some significant anti-ship missles. Not too unlike the FW-200, I suppose.

  6. Post author

    Yeah, airliners are probably a good basis for maritime patrol aircraft -- endurance is important whereas speed is less so; similarly, ample interior space for crew and electronics gear.

    Nice to see the Comet still around in some form!

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  8. Post author

    I've deleted a comment here, as the author was either a neo-Nazi or a troll (or both). And either way, it was completely off-topic and insubstantial; and the author gave a fake email address. So bye-bye.

  9. Polikarpov I-16 (not 26, a typo I guess). The Ju 52 were taken from the Lufthansa and also made the first big airtransport operation, taking the african soldiers from Marrocos to Spain. In fact, without them there would not be a Spanish Civil War...

    By the way, I think you can't speak of Guernica without touching, somehow, the Picasso about it. It simply translates all the horror of the bombing. One of the problems was the lack of proper sights, a technical problem that brought the development of dive bombers (you don't find dive bombers now, right? Sights where so important that the Norden sight (from the USA) was taken out of the B17 and B24 after all missions under armed escort.

    And, speaking of bombing, I remenber Conventry that entered a new verb in German (don't think it is used much nodways), Conventririen, to complety destroy something...

    ps, good work.

  10. Post author

    Thanks, Ricardo. Beevor argues that the airlift from North Africa was not decisive, because sealift would have been used instead if the aircraft had not been available. (But then, speed was of the essence in the early stages so maybe that's an important advantage for airlift.)

    I actually did a series of posts on Guernica last year, and I did discuss the painting in the last one, or rather my lack of understanding of why it has become so important! And I've written about coventration too, the English-language equivalent of the German word. It's not used in English anymore either ...

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  12. Chris Williams

    Thread returns from dead! I've just been reading some stuff that my mate Lisa has been putting online, in conjunction with her attempts to stop some utter nonsense planning application in York.
    It's on topic for this thread owing to this bit in her contact's account:
    "The guns on the Knavesmire were doing their stuff, adding to the cacophony, without being particularly effective, and we were just as much a 'sitting duck' as the Spanish had been in their air bombardments. "
    So - the accounts of the bombing of Spain may well have been there during the Blitz as a reference point. Of course, this context could have been put in later.

  13. Post author

    Thanks for that -- interesting. It's certainly credible that it's a comparison made at the time, I've seen other contemporary references to the Spanish war. On the other hand, he would have been only 10 at most when that war ended, you'd think he'd might be more likely to refer to London or Coventry.

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