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The bombing of Gernika

The town was bombed on the 26th of April 1937

“The attack was essentially two things: a terror bombing and a war experiment”.  

Xabier Irujo. Director of the Centre for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada.

Who bombed Gernika and why?

Gernika was the first town to be the victim of a bombing attack that was conceived as a large-scale military experiment involving the use of a huge number of bombs (around 31 to 41 tons of bombs were dropped). 

The plan of attack would be used elsewhere in Europe during the Second World War. 

This bombardment was a perfect testing ground for the newly created German Air Force, the Luftwaffe. Officially, the alleged objective was to destroy the small bridge at Renteria in order to prevent the Basque troops from retreating towards Bilbao. It is clear from the disproportionate scale of the attack, however, that it was also seen as an excellent way to demoralise the troops, discourage the civilian population and thus precipitate the future fall of the Northern Front.

How long did the bombing last? The plan of attack

The 26th of Abril 1937 was a Monday: market day. A certain nervousness could already be sensed in the air at that time, primarily on account of the recent bombardment of the neighbouring city of Durango, just 30 kilometres or so away.  In spite of everything, the market went ahead as usual, and although it is very hard to estimate exactly how many people there were in Gernika at that time, there must have been around 10 to 12,000

At 4:20 in the afternoon, the bells of the church of Santa María alerted the population to the arrival of enemy aircraft. Although some of the planes were from Italy’s “Aviazione Legionaria”, most of them belonged to Germany’s “Condor Legion”.  The planes that carried out the bombing raid took off from airfields in Vitoria, Burgos and Soria. On hearing the warning, the people of Gernika rushed to take cover in the various shelters that had been built, remaining there for almost four hours until the bombardment was over. It was a relentless attack with scarcely any gaps between the different waves and based on the following tactics:

  1. First, bomber planes and a few fighters were used to alert the population and force them to take cover in the shelters in the centre of the town. The fighters then circled the town, making sure that no one could escape.
  2. The first bombs dropped were 50 to 250 kg blast bombs designed to destroy buildings. The bombs crashed through the roofs, forming huge craters when they impacted on the ground. This exposed the entire structure and wooden elements of the houses of the time. 
  3. Then incendiary bombs rained down on the town. Weighing between 1 and 2 kg and made of steel, these bombs contained an alloy of magnesium, aluminium and zinc which reacted with other metals to cause uncontrollable fires and temperatures of more than 1,500 degrees Celsius. The result was a huge fire in Gernika, which could be seen from villages many kilometres away. 
  4. Survivors trying to escape from the town centre were strafed by fighter jets that swooped down to an altitude of less than 50 metres. They targeted the approaches to Gernika, flying in circles to keep the townspeople within the perimeter of fire. The centre of Gernika was full of narrow streets and adjoining houses, which facilitated the spread of the fire.

Destroyed surface area

According to the report issued by the National Devastated Regions Service – an agency set up by the dictatorship to assess the material damage caused during the war and the ensuing reconstruction work – 85.22% of the buildings, a total of 271, were completely destroyed and the rest were partially affected.

Number of victims

Basque Government records state that 1,654 people lost their lives

  • The Mayor of Gernika, Jose Labauria, reported that more than a thousand people had lost their lives in Gernika, including some 450 in the shelter in Calle Andra Mari. 
  • Father Eusebio Arronategi, who was in Gernika during and after the bombing and who helped to recover and identify the bodies, said that he saw “thousands of his fellow citizens suffocated, dead and wounded”. 
  • 38 eyewitnesses, including all the foreign reporters who travelled to Gernika, endorsed these figures.

The total number of deaths is however difficult to ascertain given that the more than 60,000 m3 of rubble would not be removed from the centre of the town until the end of 1941. The Franco regime did not record any deaths during this time and tried to eliminate the records compiled by the Basque authorities, thus erasing even the memory of the victims. Despite the regime’s efforts, research work to count and identify the victims continues to this day.

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