Guernica — I

[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".

At 2 a.m. to-day [27 April 1937] when I visited the town the whole of it was a horrible sight, flaming from end to end. The reflection of the flames could be seen in the clouds of smoke above the mountains from 10 miles away. Throughout the night houses were falling until the streets became long heaps of red impenetrable débris. Many of the civilian survivors took the long trek from Guernica to Bilbao in antique solid-wheeled Basque farmcarts drawn by oxen. Carts piled high with such household possessions as could be saved from the conflagration clogged the roads all night.

Cities and towns from England to China had been bombed before, but Steer -- who had reported on the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and had already seen what airpower could do to civilians -- wrote that what was done to Guernica was something completely new.

In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history. Guernica was not a military objective. A factory producing war material lay outside the town and was untouched. So were two barracks some distance from the town. The town lay far behind the lines. The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race.

It was the apparently unjustified and perhaps unjustifiable killing of so many civilians in such a small town -- population, some 5000 plus refugees -- which shocked and horrified the world.

It is impossible to state yet the number of victims. In the Bilbao Press this morning they were reported as "fortunately small," but it is feared that this was an understatement in order not to alarm the large refugee population of Bilbao. In the hospital of Josefinas, which was one of the first places bombed, all the 43 wounded militiamen it sheltered were killed outright. In a street leading downhill from the Case de Juntas I saw a place where 50 people, nearly all women and children, are said to have been trapped in an air raid refuge under a mass of burning wreckage. Many were killed in the fields, and altogether the deaths may run into hundreds. An elderly priest named Aronategui was killed by a bomb while rescuing children from a burning house.

In a following post, I'll examine the reactions in the British press to the bombing of Guernica. And then I'll look at what actually happened at Guernica, and why.

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  1. The Times, 28 April 1937, p. 17. All quotes taken from this source. []

7 thoughts on “Guernica — I

  1. David Edgerton

    I heartily recommend Ian Patterson, Guernica and Total War, which has just been published by Profile Books and will be out soon in the USA from Harvard. It is a wonderfully concise and intelligent account of the broader topics of airmindedness, frightfulness and so on, as well as the Guernica bombing itself. Excellent on the importance of the lie in all this.

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