Chapter 9 of "La Destrucción de Guernica" by César Vidal.

Translation by Peter Miller


"It is well that war is so terrible....or we should get too fond of it."

General Robert E. Lee

26th APRIL: THE FIRST MISSION. As we have seen, on the night of 25th April 1937, Richthofen did not manage to meet Vigón. However, he did succeed in arranging an appointment for seven o'clock the next morning, but contact was made earlier. In fact, at six in the morning, Richthofen held a telephone conversation with Vigón and an hour later they met in person, as agreed the day before. Richthofen wanted the main pressure applied that day to come from the north, to which Vigón replied that the 1st Brigade continued its advance towards Guernica and had orders to take Durango from the north-east. The 4th, meanwhile, had taken Eibar that morning without combat and was now to advance towards Marquina and the west. In view of this situation, Richthofen and Vigón agreed that the Luftwaffe would fly two missions. The second, which took place in the afternoon, included the bombardment of Guernica.

The latter episode has obscured, almost to the point of erasing from memory, the role played by the Condor Legion in its first mission on the 26th, during which the A/88s and Ju 88s saw action over the roads of the Marquina-Guernica-Guerricaiz zone1. The latter town was razed, between ten to two and ten past two, by a German bombardment during which about sixty incendiary and high explosive bombs were dropped2. The destruction was of considerable magnitude, but, as in the case of Durango, it would be largely eclipsed by the actions of the Condor Legion that same afternoon in Guernica.

THE FIRST BOMBARDMENTS OF GUERNICA. It was about half past four in the afternoon when the first enemy air-raid reached the town of Guernica. It was a twin-engined Dornier 17, coming from the south, flying low. After veering ninety degrees to the left, it dropped some 50 kilogram bombs over the town, that in total must have amounted to twelve in number. This action provoked the logical reaction in the town's inhabitants. The people in Guernica, numerous, because it was market day3, ran to take cover in shelters in some cases. Others chose to try and protect themselves in the surrounding farmhouses and woods.

Its mission completed, the Dornier 17 embarked upon its homeward journey, during which it passed an Italian patrol that was also heading for Guernica. It consisted of three Savoia 79s that had left Soria at half past three in the afternoon. Its mission was to bomb the town's bridge. The chronological proximity to the previous action produced the sensation that Guernica was being bombarded in distinct waves without interruption. In reality, as we shall see, several air-raids descended upon Guernica, separate but with hardly any pause between them.

The Italian planes reached their objective about an hour after take off. Their instructions were very clear. They were to " bomb the road and bridge to the east of Guernica, in order to block the enemy retreat". "For political reasons" they were not to bomb the town. The exact nature of those "political reasons" does not seem difficult to discern. As we have already seen, the Italians had been trying for some time to obtain the signing of a separate peace agreement with the Basque nationalists. Obviously, it would have been illogical to discard those previous contacts due to an act that, in military terms, was relatively secondary. The destruction by the Italians of a town of Guernica´s symbolical significance could provoke a reaction from the Basque nationalists that would render months of political effort useless. Therefore, the bombardment was to be limited to strictly military objectives situated on what could be called the periphery of the town.

The Italian planes were over Guernica for no more than one minute, according to what can be deduced from their own report. During the solitary run, from north to south, they dropped thirty-six 50 kilogram bombs. In other words, 1800 kilograms. When they left Guernica, the damage caused in the town was relatively limited. It was more or less confined to a few buildings. Among them was a three-storey house used as a headquarters by the Republican Left, probably hit by the Italians, and the church of San Juan, in all probability hit by the Dornier 17.

At a little after half past four the third bombardment of the town took place. It was carried out by a Heinkel 111 equipped with an escort of Italian planes, five Fiats under the command of Corrado Ricci, "Rocca". This third bombardment was followed by a fourth and a fifth, also limited in scale. Indeed, at five o'clock and at six o'clock in the evening, another two German twin-engined planes also dropped their bombs over the town. If the aerial attacks had stopped at that moment, for a town that until then had maintained its distance from the convulsions of war, it would have been a totally disproportionate and insufferable punishment. However, the biggest operation was yet to come.

THE JUNKERS BOMBARD GUERNICA. As stated earlier, the Ju 52s of the Condor Legion had flown a mission at about midday. Two hours and twenty-three minutes later they took off again for their afternoon mission. This length of time was to be expected, given that two hours were needed to load and prepare the planes, to which the time devoted to lunch must be added. It had been decided to carry out the bombardment in a run from north to south, starting from the sea- where they had to veer to 180 degrees- and then following the course of the River Mundaca and the River Oca.

If the objectives in Guernica had been strictly military, the Germans should have made a test run which would have allowed them to refine their aim. In fact, an order from Salamanca of 6th January 1937, signed by the Supreme Commander of the Air Force, had already established that in the case of air-raids over built-up areas aim should be precise in order to avoid civilian victims. However, the Germans decided to waive the test run. The decision, incomprehensible if the intention was to hit clearly defined objectives of a purely military character, was perfectly logical if, on the contrary, the plan was to drop their bombs on the town with the principal intention of razing it to the ground.

Premeditation is also suggested by the cargo of bombs that the German Junkers carried. In the case of the 3rd Squadron the ten kilogram devices were removed and replaced by others of 250 and 50 kilograms. The incendiary bombs in the forward bays were also kept. It was perfectly possible that such lightweight bombs (1 kg) could fall on the town, as the Command knew only too well, but they were not ruled out. This circumstance encourages one to believe that, unlike the Italians, Richthofen (who had reached an agreement with Vigón to make Guernica an objective of the Condor Legion) had no scruples against the bombardment of the town.

In fact, the combination of bombs was especially suitable for destroying a town. As Richthofen wrote in his diary, the incendiary bombs formed a third of the total, and the effects of these devices were well known after having seen the results of, for example, the bombardment of the pine forests near the Barázar Pass.

On the other hand, the number of tons (somewhat more than twenty-two) was very high for the entire town of Guernica, and would have been exorbitant for a few limited objectives theoretically situated on the periphery of the town4. In fact, this outrageous disproportion is shown even more clearly when we bear in mind that on the first day of the offensive against Bilbao all the units of the Condor Legion together dropped 66 tons of bombs on the front as a whole 5. At a later date, and perhaps driven by a desire to hide the only possible meaning of such a bomb cargo, the writers of "The War in the North" falsified the number of tons of bombs dropped on Guernica. They stated that there had only been 7ˇ956. The reason is obvious. If a load of such magnitude had been dropped on Guernica the final objective could not have consisted of a few peripheral objectives.

The principal figures in the conflict were implicated in the decision to raze Guernica. Richthofen, for example, stated in his diary that he had reached an agreement with Vigón to the effect that he was to impress "on his troops such a rhythm that all the roads to the south of Guernica are blocked. If we are successful, we will have the enemy cornered in the Marquina area"7. Such a plan was highly intelligent in tactical terms, although it contradicted Mola's initial plan. Precisely for that reason, Vigón could never have arranged such a variation with Richthofen without the authorisation of the aforementioned general8. In the final analysis, the undertaking must have received his approval, or, in its absence, direct orders from Franco. As we have already seen, these were the usual helping hands reached for by the Condor Legion when Mola favoured criteria other than their own.

Carrying a load that disclosed the probable outcome of their mission, the 1st and 2nd Squadrons took off at about half past four in the afternoon. At 4.38 GMT the 3rd Squadron took off from Burgos. The German planes were escorted by the Fiat squadron from Vitoria and the Bf 109Bs of the Lutzow squadron on the Vitoria - Mount Oiz - Cantabrian Sea - Guernica - Mount Oiz - Vitoria route. In this wave, therefore, twenty-nine planes participated. Which, when added to those that had already intervened over Guernica, makes a total of forty.

At about half past six in the evening the 1st Squadron of Junkers 52s, led by Von Knauer, made its run over Guernica. The triple-engined German planes made their attacks arranged in successive wedge formations of three aeroplanes9, which meant an attack front of about 150 metres. It was the beginning of the peaceful Basque town's definitive Calvary. The bombardment by the Ju 52s lasted from half past six until a quarter to seven. Meanwhile, the Bf 109Bs and the He 51s busied themselves machine-gunning defenceless civilians. This task lasted until seven in the evening over the adjacent roads.

When they left the town, the arms factory of Unceta and Company and Workshops of Guernica were intact, as were the Assembly House and the Tree. In the first case, it was obvious that the Germans (against the criteria of Mola) were not prepared to demolish factories that could prove useful to Franco in his war effort. In the second, it was also evident that they had avoided destroying a symbol that held special value for the Basques and Navarreses that were serving in the rebel ranks.

GUERNICA: THE FIRE. The tactic used by the Germans in Guernica had consisted in first dropping high explosive bombs followed by incendiary bombs. Meanwhile they machine-gunned civilians, not only in the town but also in the surrounding areas and neighbouring parishes10. This brutal combination meant that when the German planes left the town, the drama had hardly begun. In fact, its destruction was yet to be consummated by the incendiary bombs or those bombs whose explosion was delayed.

Contrary to what has occasionally been claimed, those responsible for extinguishing the fires that were devastating the town were not guilty of slowness11, but set to work immediately. Castor Uriarte, Guernica´s council architect, was in the town by chance. He had taken refuge in the air-raid shelter constructed in the basement of the Loizaga house. On leaving the shelter, he saw that his car was on fire after having received the impact of an incendiary bomb. In the town centre, that was "heavily destroyed and on fire"12, he met the Mayor, José de Labauria. It was imperative to combat the fire caused by the air-raid. As the telephone lines had been brought down in the attack, Labauria ordered Uriarte to requisition a car and go to the parish of Mújica. From there he could telephone the fire station in Bilbao, whose response was immediate. Within about an hour the firemen were in Guernica.

Meanwhile, Uriarte had made ready three anti-fire pumps and hoses. However, the attempt to palliate the horrible impacts of the air-raid was not to be an easy task. When trying to connect the hoses to the hydrants, Uriarte saw that the German bombs had destroyed the cast iron pipes of the water installations13. This unfortunate situation persuaded the architect to order that the pumps be taken to San Juan Ibarra Promenade in order to obtain water supplies from the River Mundaca. Thus, after making the appropriate couplings, the firemen were able to start extinguishing the fires that had begun in the houses in Port Street. It was a tricky operation. In a four storey house where they had managed to get the fire under control, an unexploded bomb went off and blew up the building. It was an episode that would be repeated on several occasions in Guernica. At a later date it would be used as enemy propaganda to show that the republican militiamen had blown up the town and were responsible for its destruction.

The fact that the houses were collapsing one after another and the fear of being isolated amongst the rubble induced Uriarte to order their retreat to the high-lying area of Guernica. There, at the start of the road to Luno, was an iron tank that formed the meeting place of the three water installations that came from the springs of Luno. At the same time it was the starting point of the distribution branches for the different areas of the town. Overcoming obstacles that increased minute by minute, Uriarte and the men under his command pulled the pumps along the railway line in the direction of Pedernales. They followed the narrow path that joins it to the Bermeo road, which they crossed. After climbing San Juan Street, they succeeded in reaching the start of the Luno road, next to the western facade of the church of Santa Maria14.

The arrival of Uriarte and his men was truly providential for the church. The setting in motion of the operation enabled the men to put out the fires that had begun to devour the church of Saint Maria, the roofs of the national schools a few other houses in the area. Meanwhile, the town of Guernica resembled a scene worthy of Dante. Surrounded by relentless flames that devoured buildings in their path, the sound of explosions in the background, the terrified inhabitants of the town ran back and forth. They were either looking for their loved ones in the streets, or trying to save part of what had, until a few hours ago, constituted their belongings.

The secondary impact of the German bombardment was revealing, in no uncertain terms, the brutality of modern warfare unleashed on a defenceless population lacking anti-aircraft protection. There was a danger, due to unexploded German bombs, of more victims being produced from among the overwhelmed population. Uriarte decided, with the consent of the mayor, to prohibit movement in the central streets that had been especially affected by the air-raid15. As for the fires, they continued inexorably. Uriarte himself could see how his chalet and that of his wife's parents, out of reach of the pumps, had been taken prisoner by the flames. He was unable to do anything to save them.

To make matters worse, the light gusts of wind only served to stoke up a fire that had a remarkable destructive capacity on its own. After three in the morning, Uriarte had to admit that all further effort was now useless. His opinion was by no means excessive. In truth, Guernica was a gigantic cinder from which nothing could now be saved. He gave the order for the firemen to return to Bilbao and, a little later, he did likewise aboard a lorry which also carried some workers who had come to look for him.

THE IMMEDIATE RESULTS. The total number of deaths caused by the bombardment of Guernica was considerable in absolute numbers, but in proportional terms could only be described as extremely high. In total, the figure must be situated between two hundred and fifty and three hundred people, with the number of injuries rather higher. Of a population of five thousand people16, this meant a little more than five percent dead. A bombardment of the same proportions would have meant approximately half a million deaths in a city like the present day Moscow or London, and not much less than this figure in an urban area like New York. Proportionally, it amounted to the equivalent percentage of deaths suffered among the combatants of both sides in the total of the battles in the Spanish Civil War. It was undoubtedly an excessive price to pay for a town that, until then, had had no military value and that had been characterised by its exceptionally peaceful and tolerant wartime way of life within the framework of the two Spains mapped out by the breakout of the Civil War.

Among the victims of the bombardment were thirty-three people sheltered in one of the wings of the Calzada Alms House ( two of whom were nuns) that the flag of the Red Cross could not save; another group sheltered in a sewer at the curve of Udechea, and a prolonged rosary of machine gun victims like Pedro de Zabalaurtena and his girlfriend, shot when they were trying to flee along the railway line. In some cases, the machine-gunning carried out by Hitler's pilots took place up to four kilometres from Guernica, for motives that seem to owe more to sadism than any supposed military necessity17.

Material damage was, again in proportional terms, extraordinary. The Harrán Report established that 71% of the buildings were completely demolished and that another 7% were victims of considerable damage18. Among the demolished buildings were the Town Hall, the church of San Juan, the pelota court and the high school. The Calzada Alms House, the railway station and a large proportion of its installations had been partly damaged.

For his part, Gonzalo Cárdenas Rodríguez, the general architect of Devastated Regions, established the figure of buildings destroyed as two hundred and seventy-one. Which meant, therefore, 74ˇ4% of those that existed in the town of Guernica and the neighbourhood of Rentería19. The proportion, truly extraordinary, is shown in its true light when compared to the destruction caused by the major bombardments during the Second World War. Of course, the Luftwaffe repeated, on a grand scale, episodes like that of Guernica in Warsaw, Rotterdam and Coventry. However, until the RAF bombardment of Cologne of 30th-31st May 1942, five years after Guernica, the allies did not manage to come close to the brutal results already obtained years before by the Nazi aviation. However, even in this action, carried out by the impressive figure of one thousand and forty-six aeroplanes, the percentage of buildings destroyed, and deaths ( four hundred and seventy-two), was less than that of Guernica. In fact, not until the atomic bombardments of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would it be possible to contemplate a percentage of destroyed buildings that would admit comparison with the bombardment of Guernica.

Only by bearing in mind these aspects can one even begin to comprehend the horror that the bombardment of Guernica caused among contemporaries, and the reactions that, as we shall see, it provoked.

The résumé of the operations of the 26th April 1937 summed up concisely the drama of Guernica in laconic military language:

NORTHERN FRONT. In León, Navia, Logrońo no activity

Vitoria. The Breguets and Heinkel 45s a mission over the bridge of Guernica.

The Junkers two missions over Guernica and the bridge of Guernica, crossing point in the enemy retreat...20

All in all, the description was too explicit, because in the above document something was acknowledged that would be denied in the days that followed: the fact that the Condor Legion had not only carried out air-raid missions over the bridge, but also over the town. It is hardly surprising that on that same day, 26th April, the pilots of the Condor Legion were prohibited from referring to, even in their own conversations, the bombardment of Guernica.

But, in spite of the horrific nature of the action, the satisfaction that reigned among those who had ordered it was clear to see. Solid proof is the way in which Richthofen referred to the episode in his diary. On the 26th he had stated that it was necessary to achieve "a triumph at last against enemy personnel and material". Two days later he was able to note down: "...precise information that Guernica has been literally devastated".

1 Richthofen, Diaries, 26th April 1937

2 The Germans were not alone in acting in the air during the morning of the 26th. The He-45s of the León Group kept watch over the lines of communication that reached as far as Durango and bombed "four or five cars" to the west of the town. Their flight took place between a quarter to eleven and twenty-five past eleven in the morning. At about a quarter past eleven, the staff ordered an action in support of the 4th Squadron. Towards half past twelve, the Breguet XIX of Logrońo and León took off and bombed " a farmhouse and a small wood situated in the immediate vicinity of Marquina", landing at a quarter to two.

3 C. Uriarte, op.cit., p 74

4 Considered correct the figures given by J. Salas Larrazábal, ob. Cit., p 145, consisting of 22ˇ07 tons dropped by the Ju 52s, 1ˇ8 by the Savoia 79s and 4ˇ35 by the twin-engines, making a total of 28ˇ22 tons.

5 The figure corresponds to the data collected in "The War in the North" of the military archive of Freiburg. In respect, see J. Salas Larrazábal, op. Cit., p73.

6 J. Salas Larrazábal, op. Cit., p 143, recognises that "the manipulation of data is clear".

7 Diary, 26th April 1937

8 J. Salas Larrazábal, op. cit., p141, declares himself of the same opinion, although he does not reach the logical conclusions.

9 In agreement with J. Salas Larrazábal, ob. cit., p147, the photograph of three Ju-52 that has occasionally been presented as taken from Guernica does not correspond to the bombardment of this town.

10 Martínez Bande, Vizcaya, p107

11 J. Salas Larrazábal, op. cit., p162. Salas states: "Nobody believes that with a more energetic attitude the town would have been saved, but that the percentage of building destroyed and seriously damaged could have been reduced and the subsequent fires on the 27th, 28th and 29th avoided." It is doubtful in all honesty that the firemen could have done more than they did.

12 C. Uriarte, op. cit., p76

13 Ibidem

14 Uriarte, op. cit., p78.

15 Ibid., p80.

16 To which two thousand soldiers must be added. J. Salas Larrazábal, op. cit., p18.

17 This was the case of Arillaga, a young man machine-gunned while talking to some peasants in la Vega, opposite the parish church of Gautéguiz de Arteaga. See Uriarte, op. cit., p80.

18 Martínez Bande, Vizcaya, p107 and 108, reproduces the same figures.

19 J. Salas Larrazábal, op. cit., p163, indicates that if the proportion of damaged buildings is established from a total of four hundred and twenty-four existing in the bombarded urban area or the four hundred and ninety-two of the municipal area of Guernica and Luno and the neighbourhood of Rentería give levels of destruction of 63ˇ9% or 55%, respectively. The calculation is correct and in any case implies a level of destruction that, although smaller, is still truly extraordinary.

20 Reproduced in J. Salas Larrazábal, "Guernica: the definitive version", in Nueva Historia, no.4, May 1977, p45.