Guernica

The town of Guernica is situated 30 kilometers east of Bilbao, in the Basque province of Vizcaya. Guernica was considered to be the spiritual capital of the Basque people.

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Guernica had a population of about 7,000 people. On 26th April 1937, Guernica was bombed by the German Condor Legion. As it was a market day the town was crowded.

The town was first struck by explosive bombs and then by incendiaries. As people fled from their homes they were machine-gunned by fighter planes. The three hour raid completely destroyed the town. It is estimated that 1,685 people were killed and 900 injured in the attack.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937)
Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937)

General Francisco Franco denied that he had nothing to do with the raid and claimed that the town had been dynamited and then burnt by Anarchist Brigades. After the war a telegram sent from Franco's headquarters was discovered and revealled that he had asked the German Condor Legion to carry out the attack on Guernica. It is believed that the attack was an attempt to demoralize the Basque people.

Primary Sources

(1) George Steer, The Times (27th April, 1937)

Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon 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 aluminum 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.

The whole of Guernica was soon in flames except the historic Casa de Juntas with its rich archives of the Basque race, where the ancient Basque Parliament used to sit. The famous oak of Guernica, the dried old stump of 600 years and the young new shoots of this century, was also untouched. Here the kings of Spain used to take the oath to respect the democratic rights (fueros) of Vizcaya and in return received a promise of allegiance as suzerains with the democratic title of Señor, not Rey Vizcaya. The noble parish church of Santa Maria was also undamaged except for the beautiful chapter house, which was struck by an incendiary bomb.

At 2 a.m. today 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 debris. Many of the civilian survivors took the long trek from Guernica to Bilbao in antique solid-wheeled Basque farm carts drawn by oxen. Carts piled high with such household possessions as could be saved from the conflagration clogged the roads all night. Other survivors were evacuated in Government lorries, but many were forced to remain round the burning town lying on mattresses or looking for lost relatives and children, while units of the fire brigades and the Basque motorized police under the personal direction of the Minister of the Interior, Señor Monzon, and his wife continued rescue work till dawn.

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. Every fact bears out this appreciation, beginning with the day when the deed was done.

Monday was the customary market day in Guernica for the country round. At 4.30 p.m. when the market was full and peasants were still coming in, the church bell rang the alarm for approaching aeroplanes, and the population sought refuge in cellars and in the dugouts prepared following the bombing of the civilian population of Durango on March 31, which opened General Mola’s offensive in the north. The people are said to have shown a good spirit. A Catholic priest took charge and perfect order was maintained.

Five minutes later a single German bomber appeared, circled over the town at a low altitude, and then dropped six heavy bombs, apparently aiming for the station. The bombs with a shower of grenades fell on a former institute and on houses and streets surrounding it. The aeroplane then went away. In another five minutes came a second bomber, which threw the same number of bombs into the middle of the town. About a quarter of an hour later three Junkers arrived to continue the work of demolition, and thenceforward the bombing grew in intensity and was continuous, ceasing only with the approach of dusk at 7.45. The whole town of 7,000 inhabitants, plus 3,000 refugees, was slowly and systematically pounded to pieces. Over a radius of five miles round a detail of the raiders’ technique was to bomb separate caserios, or farmhouses. In the night these burned like little candles in the hills. All the villages around were bombed with the same intensity as the town itself, and at Mugica, a little group of houses at the head of the Guernica inlet, the population was machine-gunned for 15 minutes.

(2) Manchester Guardian (28th April 1937)

Guernica, till 1876 capital of the Basque country, has been reduced to ruins by rebel planes of German make.

The bombardment, which lasted for three and a half hours on Monday afternoon, killed hundreds of the 10,000 inhabitants, and yesterday only a few of the buildings remained standing. Many of the ruins were still burning.

In Guernica itself it is not known how many hundreds of people - men, women, and children - have been killed; it may indeed never be known. The town is in ruins. The buildings left standing can be counted almost on the fingers of one had. Among them is, remarkably enough, the Basque Parliament building, with its famous oak tree.

The church of St. John was destroyed, but the principal church, St. Mary's, is almost intact, except for the chapter-house and part of the tower. The convent of Santa Clara, which was being used as a hospital, was destroyed, with many of its inmates. Another small hospital, with 42 beds, was completely wiped out together with its 42 wounded occupants. Yet a third hospital was wrecked with many victims.

The raid occurred on market-day when the town was full of peasants who had come into sell their produce. The bombers, all of them said to be German, came over in waves of seven at a time. Many of the people who raced desperately for the open fields were systematically pursued and machine-gunned from the air by swooping fighters.

The survivors spent a night of horror sleeping where and if they could, awaiting with resignation their evacuation today. Since early this morning the roads leading to the rear have been thronged with long streams of peasants whose whole remaining possessions are dumped on ox-carts.

Today I visited what remains of the town. I was taken to the entrance of a street like a furnace which no one had been able to approach since the raid. I was shown a bomb shelter in which over fifty women and children were trapped and burned alive. Everywhere is a chaos of charred beams, twisted girders, broken masonry, and smouldering ashes, with forlorn groups of inhabitants wandering in search of missing relatives.

I picked up an incendiary shell which failed to explode. It was made of aluminum, weighed nearly two pounds, and was liberally stamped with German eagles.

Guernica, like the other Basque country towns, was absolutely defenceless, and was provided with neither anti-aircraft guns nor planes.

General Mola, who is in charge of the rebel offensive on the Basque front, is apparently trying to carry out his threat "to destroy the whole of Biscay Province" if the Basques do not immediately surrender. When he made the threat early in April he added, "We have the means of carrying out our intentions." Yesterday the Basque Government alleged that Germans were piloting the German bombers that carried out the raid.

It is reported that General Mola has now warned the Basque Government that he will raze Bilbao to the ground unless the town surrenders. But the Government states that after the destruction of Guernica surrender of the Basque capital is less than ever possible. A report that the Argentine Ambassador at Hendaye had been asked to act as intermediary to arrange for the surrender is denied.

It seems, in fact, that the vicious bombing of Guernica will stiffen the Basque resistance. The Basques were last night claiming that the rebel offensive in the region of Durango had been "brilliantly repulsed" and that the rebels were being held back form the Eibar sector to the coast.

Senor Aguirre, the Basque President, last night published a decree reorganising the regular army into battalions, brigades, and divisions under a new commander-in-chief. Under another decree all industries catering for the needs of war are militarised and mobilised.

(3) Father Alberto de Onaindia, witnessed the bombing of Guernica on 26th April 1937. He was interviewed by the author, Robert Payne, for his book, The Civil War in Spain (1963)

Late in the afternoon of April 26th I was going by car to rescue my mother and my sisters, then living in Marquina, a town about to fall into the hands of Franco. It was one of those magnificently clear days, the sky soft and serene. We reached the outskirts of Guernica just before five o'clock. The streets were busy with the traffic of market day. Suddenly we heard the siren, and trembled. People were running about in all directions, abandoning everything they possessed, some hurrying into the shelters, others running into the hills. Soon an enemy aeroplane appeared over Guernica. A peasant was passing by. 'It's nothing, only one of the 'white' ones,' he said. 'He'll drop a few bombs, and then he'll go away.' The Basques had learned to distinguish between the twin-engined 'whites' and the three-engined 'blacks.' The 'white' aeroplane made a reconnaissance over the town, and when he was directly over the centre he dropped three bombs. Immediately afterwards he saw a squadron of seven planes followed a little later by six more, and this in turn by a third squadron of five more. All of them were Junkers. Meanwhile Guernica was seized with a terrible panic.

I left the car by the side of the road and took refuge with five milicianos in a sewer. The water came up to our ankles. From our hiding-place we could see everything that happened without being seen. The aeroplanes came low, flying at two hundred metres. As soon as we could leave our shelter, we ran into the woods, hoping to put a safe distance between us and the enemy. But the airmen saw us and went after us. The leaves hid us. As they did not know exactly where we were, they aimed their machine-guns in the direction they thought we were travelling. We heard the bullets ripping through branches, and the sinister sound of splintering wood. The milicianos and I followed the flight patterns of the aeroplanes; and we made a crazy journey through the trees, trying to avoid them.

Meanwhile women, children and old men were falling in heaps, like flies, and everywhere we saw lakes of blood.

I saw an old peasant standing alone in a field: a machine-gun bullet killed him. For more than an hour these eighteen planes, never more than a few hundred metres in altitude, dropped bomb after bomb on Guernica. The sound of the explosions and of the crumbling houses cannot be imagined. Always they traced on the air the same tragic flight pattern, as they flew over all the streets of Guernica. Bombs fell by thousands. Later we saw the bomb craters. Some were sixteen metres in diameter and eight metres deep.

The aeroplanes left around seven o'clock, and then there came another wave of them, this time flying at an immense altitude. They were dropping incendiary bombs on our martyred city. The new bombardment lasted thirty-five minutes, sufficient to transform the town into an enormous furnace. Even then I realized the terrible purpose of this new act of vandalism. They were dropping incendiary bombs to try to convince the world that the Basques had fired their own city.

(4) Maria Goitia, who witnessed the bombing of Guernica, was interviewed by the French newspaper, Petit Parisien, in April 1937.

Monday was market day and the villagers of the neighbourhood were assembled at Guernica. At four o'clock in the afternoon, when the crowd was largest, an aeroplane appeared and dropped a few bombs, causing the first

victims. The people fled from the marketplace to hide in the houses. New aeroplanes then appeared and bombarded the houses and churches. People were dying under the ruins of the demolished houses.

The houses were burning as a result of the incendiary bombs. The people were obliged to run out of the houses, and then they were fired on from machine-guns. I saw all this from the house where I had taken refuge. Many people remained lying in the street dead or wounded. In the houses you heard the wounded howling with pain. Many were burned alive under the ruins.

When the house to which I had fled began to bum I ran like mad. Machine-gun bullets continued to whistle round me, but I did not stop. When I got into a field I hid under a bush. People were running across the field trying to escape the bombs and bullets, which continued to pursue them. I remained under the bush till eight o'clock at night until it grew dark and the aeroplanes departed. Guernica by that time was nothing but a horrible bonfire.

(5) Elizabeth Wilkinson, The Daily Worker (27th April 1937)

Yesterday at about 1.30 pm I arrived in Guernica, the ancient capital of the Basque country. It was a peaceful town, with no factories, no munition works and no troops stationed there. Peasant women and children were going quietly about the streets.

Then at four o'clock the rebels began a brutal bombardment which continued without stopping until seven in the evening.

More than fifty German planes rained bombs on the town and machine-gunned the streets incessantly. The surrounding villages were similarly bombarded. The rebel planes even machine-gunned the flocks in the fields.

At eleven o'clock at night the whole town was in flames, not a single house standing. The streets and the square were crammed with goods and chattels snatched from the inferno. The people are still searching for missing relatives, for wives, daughters, husbands, sweethearts and children.

During the first few minutes of the bombardment the Catholic priest blessed the people, Socialists and Communists included.

The roads out of Guernica are now thronged with refugees, driving their sheep and cattle and carrying their rescued goods with them. Eleven thousand more people are coming to Bilbao. Eleven thousand more to be fed.

(6) R. C. Stevenson, British Consul, letter sent to the British Ambassador (28th April 1937)

On landing at Bermeo yesterday I was told about the destruction of Guernica. I went at once to have a look at the place and to my amazement found that the township normally of some five thousand inhabitants, since the September influx of refugees about ten thousand, was almost completely destroyed. Nine houses in ten are beyond reconstruction. Many were still burning and fresh fires were breaking out here and there, the result of incendiary bombs which owing to some fault had not exploded on impact the day before and were doing so, at the time of my visit, under falling beams and masonry. The casualties cannot be ascertained and probably never will, accurately. Some estimates put the figure at one thousand, others at over three thousand. An inhabitant who went through it all, told me that at about 4 p.m. three machines appeared overhead and dropped H.E. and incendiary bombs. They disappeared and ten minutes later a fresh lot of five or six machines came and so on for several hours, until after seven. All told he estimates the number of planes at fifty. After two or three visits panic seized the population. Men, women and children poured out of Guernica and ran up the bare hillsides. There they were mercilessly machine gunned, though with little effect. They spent the night in the open gazing at their burning city. I saw many men and women erring through the streets searching in the wreckage of their houses for the bodies of their dear ones.

(7) Kim Philby, The Times (28th April, 1937)

It is feared that the conflagration destroyed much of the evidence of its origin, but it is felt here that enough remains to support the Nationalist contention that incendiaries on the Basque side had more to do with the razing of Guernica than General Franco's aircraft. . . . Few fragments of bombs have been recovered, the facades of buildings still standing are unmarked, and the few craters I inspected were larger than anything hitherto made by a bomb in Spain. From their positions it is a fair inference that these craters were caused by exploding mines which were unscientifically laid to cut roads. In view of these circumstances it is difficult to believe that Guernica was the target of bombardment of exceptional intensity by the Nationalists or an experiment with incendiary bombs, as it is alleged by the Basques.

(8) Leah Manning wrote about the bombing of Guernica in her autobiography, A Life For Education (1970)

I had arrived in Bilbao on April 24 and on the next day had gone to Mass with the Foreign Secretary and his family, spending the rest of the day in his office. The morning of the 26th I spent quietly at the office of Asistencia Social, discussing in outline the plans for evacuation.

In the afternoon I made my way down to La Prensa where a group of journalists had invited me for a drink, among them Philip Jordan and George Steer, who during the next few weeks were to prove towers of strength and encouragement to me. A day begun so quietly was to end in indescribable horror and dismay.

"A raid's coming up," said Jordan. "Do you want to go down to the shelter?" I shook my head, so we went outside. Phil's ear had caught the sound of bombers in the air, although there had been no warning. Across the hills to the east the air was alive with Heinkels as wave after wave drove in from the sea. They were followed by Junkers. Horror-striken, the Basques amongst us shouted, "Guernica! they're bombing Guernica!" It seemed incredible that such a monstrous thing could happen to this quiet little market town, renowned from time immemorial as the home of Basque liberation where, before the famous oak tree, rulers of Spain had traditionally sworn to observe Basque local rights. Helpless to do anything we watched from the hills. Until nearly eight in the evening, incendiary bombs and high explosives rained down every twenty minutes. The town was open and defenceless; it was crowded with market day visitors and as people fled from the destruction they were dive-bombed and machine-gunned from the air. The roads out of the town were jammed with dead and injured: 1,654 killed; 889 injured.

(9) Luis Bolin was the Nationalist press chief in charge of propaganda and censorship during the Spanish Civil War. Bolin wrote about Guernica in his memoirs, Spain, the Vital Years (1967)

During the advance on Bilbao, Guernica became part of the front line. It contained several small factories, one of them engaged in the manufacture of arms and ammunition. It was an important road junction and a depot of substantial size for the massing of reserves on their way to the trenches. The Republicans in Bilbao needed a sensational story to offset their reverses. They dispatched Asturian miners to dynamite Guernica and set fire to its buildings and swore that they had been blown to smithereens by German bombs. To destroy an entire small town, not hundreds but thousands of bombs would be required. The resources for such wholesale destruction are entirely lacking to either side in this war. It should be noted that the destruction though involving many buildings spared the Guernica tree and adjoining structure. Basque separatists took great care not to damage the tree which they held in special veneration.

(10) The Manchester Guardian (1st May 1937)

Whether Franco was informed or not in advance of the air raid on Guernica and whether Germans alone were responsible are considered here to be questions of secondary importance. What is considered to be important is that Guernica may be regarded as the most glaring example - more glaring even than the Italian methods in Abyssinia - of the full application of the 'totalitarian war' principle in so far as such a war must take no humanitarian considerations of any kind into account. It is also regarded as an experiment in future German warfare, and Guernica is aptly described by a French observer as "Goring's air manoeuvres' - at the expense of innocent Spaniards.

The passport of a German airman, Hans Sobotka, who crashed at Bilbao a few days ago, and photographs of which were reproduced in the 'Soir', provides additional confirmation of the concentration of an important German air force in the North of Spain within the past few weeks. The passport was issued in Berlin as recently as April 5 and stamped in Rome on the following day.

Attention is also drawn here to a particularly significant article from the special correspondent of the 'Frankfurter Zeitung' with the rebel troops in the North of Spain, in which he said that the rebel authorities have concentrated between 'twelve or fifteen dozen bombers and pursuit planes on the Viscaya front, and with only a dozen "Red" aeroplanes to oppose them they can fly over the whole Basque country practically undisturbed'. He also admits that the rebels are ten times

better equipped with material than the Basques.

Further, a particularly sinister episode is contained in the dispatch in which the system of demoralising the unprotected 'Reds' by bombarding them first and then firing down on them from machine-guns - a system fully applied at Guernica - is described in every detail. The article appeared in the 'Frankfurter Zeitung' on April 22 - that is, three days before the Guernica massacre - and its author had obviously been in contact with the German air authorities in the North of Spain.

The attitude of certain French papers of the Right is now even more extraordinary than it was during their subsidised campaign in favour of Mussolini during the Abyssinian conflict. They now actually proclaim even without question-marks that Guernica was burned by the Basques themselves.

Spanish messages show that the rebels are still actively explaining away the destruction of Guernica and Eibar by German planes by saying that they were destroyed by 'Reds'. A communiqué issued by the rebel G.H.O. at Salamanca, received by Renter in London yesterday, said:

"The destruction of the richer part of Guernica, as of Eibar, by the retreating Reds has aroused indignation among our troops and is spurring them on to save the Basque people from the Communists who are destroying their property."

(11) Edward Knoblaugh, Correspondent in Spain (1937)

The bombing of the Basque town of Guernica was one of the most fortunate bits of material for the propaganda machine. Guernica had an arms factory. It was used as a Loyalist military base, and it was in the path of Franco's march on Bilbao. But the government propaganda workers exploited the fact that Guernica had a venerated oak-tree in a central plaza. The bombardment became "an atrocious attack on the defenseless, holy city of the Basques." It aroused such a wave of indignation abroad that not even the joint statement of disinterested correspondents, testifying that the principal damage had been caused by Anarchist incendiaries and Asturian dynamiters before they evacuated Guernica, carried much weight.

(12) Statement issued by the Nationalist government on 3rd May 1937.

With the unanimity which might appear to suggest obedience to orders many English and French newspapers are using a comparatively minor event such as the hypothetical bombardment of a small town as the basis of a campaign designed to present 'Nationalist' Spain as anti-humanitarian and opposed to the principles of the laws of nations, thus serving the ends of the Soviet faction which dominates the Spanish 'Red' zone. These newspapers clamour against the bombardment of open towns, attempting to lay the blame for such outrages upon the 'Nationalists'. 'National' Spain energetically rejects so injurious a campaign and denounces these manoeuvres before the world.

The newspapers now crying aloud remained silent when in Madrid, under the presidency of the 'Red' Government, thousands of innocent beings were murdered. Over 60,000 died at the hands of the 'Red' hordes without any motive other than the whims of a militiaman or a servant's dislike, in this way perished old people, women, and children, all of them innocent. In the Madrid prisons murders were committed without check under the supervision of the 'Red' Government agents. There fell intellectuals, politicians, many Republicans, Liberals, Democrats, and members of the Right.

At Barcelona also 50,000 or 60,000 horrible murders have been committed, and there have been many thousands more killed in Malaga, Valencia, and other large towns after barbarous tortures. This was not war. It was crime and vengeance. But then the newspapers which are today defending so-called humanitarian principles were silent or spoke timidly or even attempted to justify such barbarous crimes. They were silent too when bishops and thousands of priests, monks, and nuns were cruelly done to death and beautiful artistic treasures were burned in the churches of Spain.

The hospitals at Melilla, Cordova, Burgos, Saragossa, and recently the schools at Vallodolid and towns miles from the front have been bombarded by the 'Red' aeroplanes. There were numerous victims among the women and children without any word of protest being heard from the self-appointed champions of humanity. The city of Oviedo has been literally destroyed by the 'Red Huns' and aeroplanes in the same silence.

And now the Basque Soviet allies have blown up Eibar, a hard-working industrial city before the entry of our troops. They used dynamite and liberally sprayed petrol until most of the buildings were destroyed. But those who today weep for Guernica remained unmoved and suffered no scandal. Irun suffered a similar fate under the eyes of European journalists and witnesses from Hendaye in the same negligent or culpable silence.

Guernica, less than four miles from the fighting line, was an important crossroads filled with troops retiring towards other defences. At Guernica an important factory has been manufacturing arms and munitions for nine months. It would not have been surprising if the 'National' 'planes had marked Guernica as an objective. The laws of war allowed it, the rights of the people notwithstanding. It was a classical military objective with an importance thoroughly justifying a bombardment. Yet it was not bombarded.

It is possible that a few bombs fell upon Guernica during days when our aeroplanes were operating against objectives of military importance. But the destruction of Guernica, the great fire at Guernica, the explosions which during the whole day occurred at Guernica - these were the work of the same men who at Eibar, Irun, Malaga, and countless towns of Northern and Southern Spain demonstrated their ability as incendiarists.

The Spanish and part of the foreign press duly reported the 'Red' Militia's threats to destroy Madrid before the 'National' troops entered it. The blowing up of great buildings which are today still mined has been systematically prepared by the 'Red' Government, which is indirectly served by those now clamouring about Guernica. Let this manoeuvre at the service of 'Red' Spain cease and let the world know that Guernica's case, though clumsily exploited, turns against this Government of incendiarists and assassins, who at Russia's orders pursue the systematic destruction of the national wealth of Spain.