Excerpt from 1492 and all that!
The town of Guernica (Gernika in Basque and since the 1980s officially named Gernika-Luma) was small with a population of just 5,000 in 1937.
Its significance was that it was where the Biscayan and Basque people had routinely met under an oak tree, the Gernikako Arbola. The tree become symbolic with Castilian kings and Carlist leaders who beneath its branches would symbolically pledge to fight for the liberty of the local people .
In April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, the Nationalists pressed up towards Bilbao. It was Guernica that stood between them and the taking of the strategic northern city. Taking Bilbao would effectively resolve the war in the north and taking Guernica could cut off the Republicans in the north from their more southerly strongholds.
Guernica had no air support and was powerless when it was subjected to the first modern-day aerial attack. The attack was notionally commanded by the Nationalists but in fact it was undertaken by the German Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionari. The raid was code-named ‘Operation Rügen’.
Von Richthofen selected Guernica in part because it had been untouched by the war to that point. He used it as an ‘experiment’ to see what bombing an untouched city might achieve. It was an exercise to test the German Blitzkrieg terror-bombing techniques. In fact the two Fascist nations used the Spanish Civil War for many techniques that would later be applied in WWII.
It was the town’s market day though it is unclear if they were still holding markets at that time. Twenty-four bombers initially knocked out the surrounding roads and bridges; the early bomb runs did largely avoid any direct bombing of the town.
But a second wave of twenty-nine aircraft destroyed approaching 80% of the town’s buildings. The Gernikako Arbola however was not damaged. Following the raid Republican volunteers guarded the tree against the Nationalists fearing it would be felled on account of its significance to the Basques.
The number of casualties is a point of contention; modern sources claim it was as few as 126, though a further 600 subsequently died in a Bilbao hospital. The London Times back then suggested the figure to be between 800 and 3,000. Russian sources said 800, the Basques authorities talked of 1,654 dead and 889 wounded. Initially Franco denied that any attack had even taken place, saying the destruction was caused by its defenders.
The Germans had completed their experiment and the Nationalists had dealt a major blow against the spirit of Basque nationalism. But the echoes of the attack had far-reaching effects, with the UK’s PM Chamberlain and France’s President Daladier soon seeking an appeasement with Hitler. It also prompted Britain to beef up its RAF to be able to counter such an assault along its south coast.
The raid was’ immortalised’ in Picasso’s painting that hangs today in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.