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Here’s why the bombing of Guernica was Hitler’s greatest victory in the Spanish Civil War

Mural in Guernica based on the Picasso painting. Basque nationalists advocate that the painting be brought to the town, as can be seen in the slogan underneath.

The wildly exaggerated reports of the bombing gave the world the impression that the Luftwaffe could easily raze entire cities to the ground — something, certainly not within the capabilities of the Luftwaffe in 1937 or 1938, or even in 1940.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, the Luftwaffe was a new air force, having been established in secret and only officially formed in 1935. But it was rapidly expanding, and already in a position to help its ideological allies, Franco’s Nationalists. The Luftwaffe’s expeditionary force —the Legion Condor — launched the world’s first major airlift to bring Franco’s troops to Spain.

Over the next three years it sent its best pilots and newest aircraft — the Bf 109, He 111 and Ju 87 Stuka — to join the fight and develop the Luftwaffe’s doctrine, tactics and combat experience.

As told by Dr James S. Corum in his book Legion Condor 1936-39 the Luftwaffe develops Blitzkrieg in the Spanish Civil War, the Legion Condor also played the lead role in the single most famous incident of the Spanish Civil War — the air attack on Guernica, a small Basque town located close behind the Republican Army lines. On Apr. 26, 1937 it became the most-written-about single action of the Spanish Civil War.

Guernica was a small industrial town of 7,000 people that had a key bridge and road junction crossing the Mundaca river. It was the only river crossing for 20 miles and a large portion of the Basque Army, 23 battalions, was in retreat to positions behind the river. If the bridge could be cut and the town closed to traffic the main escape route of the Basque Army could be cut. Guernica offered a chance for operational-level interdiction.

At 4.30pm on Apr. 26, the legion Condor attacked Guernica. Three modern He 111 medium bombers and one Dornier Do 17 light bomber flew in the lead as pathfinders. They were followed up by 18 jut 52 bombers and supported by Bf 109 and He 51 fighter planes. The attack was also joined by some Nationalist Air Force Ju 52s. Attacking in waves of three to four aircraft, the Legion Condor’s aircraft pounded the town for an hour. The Germans dropped about 32 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the town, with the Renteria Bridge as the aim point. The initial bombing pass dropped their bombs just short of the bridge. With the target covered in smoke the successive waves of bombers dropped their bombs into the area of the town centre. The bombing raid failed to destroy the bridge, but one end of the town was thoroughly wrecked, and this met the tactical objective of shutting the road to traffic for 24 hours. However, the Nationalist Army, just a few miles from Guernica, failed to move up quickly and trapped the Basque Army. During the next three days the Army cleared the road through Guernica and evacuated its forces over the Renteria bridge. Legion Condor’s chief of staff Oberstleutnant Wolfram von Richthofen commented that while the raid on Guernica was a ‘technical success’ he was disappointed that the Nationalist Army had not followed up the raid quickly enough and seized the town, and by doing so, cut off the retreat of much of the Basque Army.

A Bf 109A from the Condor Legion with Spanish rebel markings

The raid on Guernica was similar to many other raids targeting small towns in Spain during the war. The German operational rationale in bombing towns like Guernica was explained in a Legion Condor report to Berlin made on Feb. 11, 1938: ‘We have notable results in hitting targets near the front, especially in bombing villages which hold enemy reserves and headquarters. We have had great success because these targets are easy to find and can be thoroughly destroyed by carpet bombing.’ In the report, it was noted that attacks on point targets, such as bridges, roads and rail lines, were more difficult, and generally less successful simply because the bombers were not effective in hitting precise targets. The era of precision bombing had not yet arrived.

However, the era of mass media had arrived. The Basque government trumpeted the attack on Guernica as a ‘terror attack’ against a defenceless ‘open city’ (it was not, there were two Basque Army battalions in the town) with the intention of using massive air strikes to break the will of the Basque population. The government released an official figure of 1,687 dead and more than 800 wounded – almost half the population of the town as casualties. British reporters visited Guernica just after the attack and described scenes of horrific devastation. Lurid descriptions of the bombing were spread on headlines of the major newspapers throughout Europe and America. Pablo Picasso was inspired to paint his great work `Guernica’ which was exhibited at the world expositions in Paris just a few weeks later.

Ironically, a news event written to alert the world to German brutality and gain international sympathy for the Spanish Republic ended up as Hitler’s greatest victory in the Spanish Civil War. The wildly exaggerated reports of the bombing (the actual count for civilians killed at Guernica was 300, not 1,687) gave the world the impression that the Luftwaffe could easily raze entire cities to the ground — something, certainly not within the capabilities of the Luftwaffe in 1937 or 1938, or even in 1940. The popular story of Guernica was very much in the minds of the British and French governments when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Premier Edouard Daladier met with Hitler at Munich in September 1938, and bargained away the freedom Czechoslovakia, primarily because they and their populations feared the total destruction of their cities by the Luftwaffe.

Legion Condor 1936-39 the Luftwaffe develops Blitzkrieg in the Spanish Civil War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Ruins of Guernica

Photo credit: Self-photographed, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25224 / Unknown author and Unknown author via Wikipedia

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