Share This Article

After a Spanish town was bombed in 1937, overheated—and inaccurate—accounts of civilian deaths shook the world.

On April 26, 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, German war – planes bombed Guernica, the ancient Basque capital and the center of Basque culture, in perhaps the most famous conventional bombing raid of all time. Overnight, the obscure town became known around the world.

The account of the bombing trumpeted by the international press seemed to prove all the worst predictions of civilian casualties that might result from aerial bombardment. In the report that became the touchstone of the others that followed, George Steer of the London Times wrote that the town— a “horrible sight, flaming from end to end”—was not a military objective but had been destroyed to achieve “the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race.” Guernica became the poster town for terror bombings carried out solely to break civilian morale, a legacy that was ensured by Pablo Picasso, who within two months painted his masterpiece Guernica, a depiction of civilian slaughter and agony that would become history’s most famous piece of antiwar art.

Even today the very mention of Guernica attracts an exceptional level of hyperbole. In their 2009 book Bombing Civilians, Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn Young assert that Guernica “was the first time in history that attacks were carried out against a city and civilians exclusively from the air.” The official casualty figure of the time—more than 2,500 men, women, and children, almost one-third of the town’s population—is still commonly cited. A current display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which describes the exhibition of Picasso’s Guernica there in 1939, asserts the raid resulted in “thousands of civilian casualties.” Indeed, on the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Guernica, the German government issued an official apology to Spain for having killed “over 1,000 civilians at Guernica.” Within a short period Guernica was transformed from the historical reality of a relatively minor tactical operation into an enduring symbol of the brutality of modern warfare.

But over the years, much of what has been taken as gospel about Guernica has been called into question. A closer look by this writer a decade ago in The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, used Guernica to point out the terrifying power of propaganda, in that case not only to raise worldwide concern about the Nazi menace but to set the stage for the Munich Agreement and the Allied nations’ nearly fatal policies of appeasement. Still, the Guernica myths persist, and in an era when both disinformation and misinformation have enormous power to shape public perceptions—and even take nations to war— getting the facts straight behind one of the most momentous military nonevents in history becomes a historical imperative.

After the civil war broke out in Spain in July 1936, it quickly became an international struggle be- tween the forces of the far right and far left. Germany and Italy rushed men and equipment to the Nationalists under Gen. Francisco Franco, who represented a coalition of fascists, monarchists, and capitalists. The Soviet Union sent aid and advisers to the government of the Spanish Republic, which relied on communist and socialist support. The initial phase of the war ended in a bloody stalemate around Madrid in late 1936, when the Nationalist drive on the city was stopped by newly created Republican divisions armed with modern Soviet weapons, such as Polikarpov I-16 fighters and T-26 tanks.

The next phase of the war began in the spring of 1937 when the Nationalists went on the offensive to destroy the Basque enclave in northern Spain. The Nationalist Army of the North, commanded by Gen. Emilio Mola, was supported by the German Condor Legion, 100 combat aircraft and 5,000 men drawn from the Luftwaffe and sent to Spain to test weapons and personnel in combat—under the operational control of the Spanish Nationalist government. The Condor Legion was commanded by Maj. Gen. Hugo Sperrle, with the brilliant Lt. Col. Wolfram von Richthofen, cousin of the famous “Red Baron” and later a field marshal, serving as chief of staff. Sperrle worked with the Nationalist high command at the strategic level while Richthofen managed the daily planning and operations of the Condor Legion. The two experienced air commanders made a superb team. [For more from this author on Richthofen, see “The Other Richthofen” in the August/September 2008 issue of our sister publication World War II, or at the-other-richthofen.htm.]

Through March and early April 1937, the Nationalists steadily advanced through the rugged Basque mountains. The success of the Nationalist offensive can largely be credited to the Condor Legion, as it won air superiority over the skies of northern Spain and developed effective new tactics to provide air support for the Nationalist army.

By late April the Nationalist forces were closing in on Guernica, a small town of 7,000 at a vital crossroads and bridge over the Mundaca River. The Basque forces east of Guernica were in retreat, and if the Renteria bridge and road junction at Guernica could be destroyed, the withdrawal route of more than 20 battalions of the Basque army could be closed. On April 25 Richthofen wrote in his diary, “Guernica has to be destroyed if we are to strike a blow against enemy personnel and materiel.” By then the Nationalist forces had advanced to within 10 miles of the town, so Richthofen ordered his staff to draw up a plan to destroy the bridge and town center. In the meantime, German fighters were ordered to attack all traffic on roads in and out of Guernica.

At 4:30 p.m. on April 26, the Condor Legion struck. Three modern He 111 medium bombers and one Do 17 light bomber flew in the lead as pathfinders. They were followed by 18 Ju 52/3m bombers, which were converted transport planes, and supported by Bf 109 and He 51 fighter planes. The attack was also joined by three Italian SM.79 bombers and some Nationalist air force Ju 52 bombers. Attacking in waves of three or four, the Condor Legion’s aircraft pounded the town for an hour.

The Germans and Italians dropped about 40 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs, with the heaviest damage to the Renteria District of the town, near the bridge. The first bombers dropped their ordnance short of the bridge and created so much smoke and dust that the next planes were unable to see the crossing. So they simply dropped their bombs through the smoke into the vicinity of the town center. The bombing raid failed to destroy the bridge but succeeded in its tactical objective of shutting the road for 24 hours.

Despite the relative success of the attack, the Nationalists didn’t move quickly enough to block the Basque retreat. The Basques repaired the road, and most of their army retreated in good order through the town. While accounts vary, it appears General Mola’s forces did not occupy Guernica until April 28, at the earliest.

The story of the bombing broke in the London as a Page 1 article on April 28, 1937. The porter, George Steer, visited Guernica the day after the attack. Steer insisted that Guernica had no military significance at all and confidently described the Times Times rebombing as part of Franco’s grand strategy. “The planning of the attack was murderously logical and efficient. Its aim was unquestionably to terrorize the Basque government into surrender by showing them what Bilbao may soon expect.”

The press played on the theme that the Guernica bombing was something new, a unique event in the war that foreshadowed an escalation of terror. Steer piled on hyperbole: “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.”

On April 30 the British magazine the Spectator featured the Guernica bombing as a lead article. “Everything that has happened in Spain the last week…is overshadowed by the barbaric horror of the bombing of the old Basque capital, Guernica, by general Franco’s airplanes. Never in modern history has Europe known anything comparable.” Playing on the Times’s lurid account, the Spectator described Guernica as having ceased to exist. “The Spanish Civil War, unexampled in the bestial fury exhibited, has produced incidents bestial beyond belief…but the sickening butchery at Guernica has no parallel. It takes rank among crimes which their very hideousness prints indelibly on history.”

Over the next two weeks, the original London Times story was repeated often and grew in the telling as it passed through the United Kingdom, Europe, and America. In New York a newspaper editorial asserted that “none of the other atrocities of this sanguinary civil war has been more conclusively attested than this latest example of ruthlessness…against the terrorism of fire and destruction from the skies were pitted in the deep courage and deep faith of the people and their priests.” The New York Post printed a cartoon of Guernica showing Hitler standing over mountains of civilian dead labeled “the Holy City of Guernica,” his bloody sword captioned “air raids.” The United States Congressional Record reported that poison gas was used at Guernica. In Great Britain, members of Parliament denounced the attack and described Guernica as an “open city” with no military targets.

Shortly after the bombing the Basque government announced that 1,654 civilians had been killed and 889 wounded. Within weeks Guernica became an international symbol for the barbarity of air raids directed against civilians. Picasso’s painting was the final touch. Commissioned by the Republicans and unveiled at the International Exposition in Paris in the summer of 1937, the giant mural brought home the brutality of modern aerial warfare to a shocked public.

That interpretation of the raid persisted. The claims of massive civilian casualties and the interpretation of the raid as a harbinger of the ruthless targeting of civilians that was to become common in World War II have been only rarely challenged in the popular and historical literature to this day. In fact, those claims were so powerful that they played a major role in the Nazis’ dismemberment and occupation of Czechoslovakia, and, indeed, in setting the stage for World War II. The fear of German air power paralyzed democratic nations when they might easily have stopped Hitler. But at the heart of these fears lies a web of myths and propaganda.

MYTH: Guernica represented a new form of air warfare that specifically targeted civilians.

TRUTH: Bombing cities was nothing new in 1937. In the early stages of the Spanish Civil War both sides bombed enemy cities, largely with a view of demoralizing the enemy population. The most dramatic city bombing of the period occurred over two weeks in November 1936 when, in an attempt to break the stalemate on the Madrid front, German, Italian, and Nationalist air units carried out a campaign against the city. The last raid, on November 30, resulted in 244 civilian dead and 875 wounded. Despite the losses and damage, the civilian population was not seriously demoralized, nor were Madrid’s industries affected. The Nationalists and Condor Legion soon called off the city bombing raids as a wasted effort.

Yet as the Nationalist offensive in northern Spain began, the Germans soon found that a concentrated bombing of towns on the front line was a very effective means of supporting ground troops. On April 4 a heavy air attack preceded the Nationalist ground attack against Basque positions at Ochandiano. Employing all the bombers of the Condor Legion en masse, the Germans rained 60 tons of bombs upon the town. Afterward the Nationalists overran the Basques with little resistance— finding more than 200 Basque soldiers killed by the air attack and taking 400 prisoners too dazed to retreat. In April the Nationalists heavily bombed the town of Durango, which was close to the front lines and home to Basque army reserves and supply points. Again the bombing disrupted the Republican defense. Yet the international press scarcely took note.

Nationalist leaders were very cautious about ordering air attacks against Republican-held cities after the bombing of Madrid in 1936. They were understandably reluctant to destroy valuable industries when they soon expected to control them.

“It would have been simple for the Nationalist Air Force to bomb Valencia, Barcelona or Madrid into ashes with incendiary bombs, but politically that was unacceptable,” one Luftwaffe colonel wrote just after the Nationalists won the war. “What would be the purpose of destroying the valuable industries of Bilbao or the weapons factory in Reinosa if they would be occupied in a short time?” Indeed, the Condor Legion generally opposed bombing cities to break morale and reported to Berlin that its aircraft were best used supporting troops on the front line, interdicting Republican supply lines, and attacking shipping and port facilities.

MYTH: The town itself was the main target, not the bridge and crossroads.

TRUTH: During the campaign in northern Spain in 1937, the Condor Legion found that it had to bomb small towns to hit strategic targets (roads, reserves, bridges, depots) within them. The Condor Legion was incapable of pinpoint bombing at that point in the Luftwaffe’s development. Although some modern He 111 medium bombers had just arrived in early 1937, at Guernica the bomber force consisted of three squadrons of the Ju 52/53 transports modified as bombers. Each Ju 52/53 could carry a load of one to one-and-a-half tons of bombs and employed a primitive bombsight. To make sure they hit the target, the Germans would simply carpet it with bombs. Only bombing towns in toto would be sure to seriously disrupt the enemy defenses. The Luftwaffe in Spain laid out its bombing rationale in a report to Berlin in February 1938: “We have had notable results in hitting the targets near the front, especially in bombing villages which hold enemy reserves and headquarters…. [They] are easy to find and can be thoroughly destroyed by carpet bombing.”

MYTH: Guernica was a civilian target without military significance.

TRUTH: After World War II the Allied prosecutors at Nuremberg were pressured to include Guernica and the Spanish Civil War among the crimes against humanity with which Italians and Germans were charged. The prosecutors rejected these arguments—and they were right to do so, because the bombing of Guernica can be justified on military grounds. Contrary to the press reports, it was no undefended “open city.” At least two Basque battalions, the 18th Loyala Battalion and the Saseta Battalion, were stationed in Guernica. If they had had the time to fortify the city, it would have made a powerful stronghold for the Basque army against the Nationalist advance. In short, by all the rules of international warfare in 1937, Guernica was a legitimate target. The British and Americans bombed many towns in France, Italy, and Germany for tactical reasons. The bombing and destruction of Caen and St. Lô in Normandy in 1944 were designed to assist the Allied advance. In fact, in most respects Guernica resembled a standard World War II operation. In the days before the bombing, Richthofen ordered Condor Legion fighters to strafe vehicles and other traffic on the main roads around Guernica—orders no different than those issued by Allied air commanders during the advance through France and Germany in 1944–1945.

Richthofen considered the Guernica bombing—which never involved gas—a fairly routine tactical operation and a “technical success” since it brought the town to a standstill for a full day.

MYTH: The Guernica attack struck at the Basque national symbols chiefly to break the spirit of the Basque people.

TRUTH: Neither the Germans nor the Spanish Nationalists intended their bombing of Spanish Republican cities to induce terror or weaken the resolve of the Basques. This is clear from confidential Condor Legion reports to Berlin, as well as Richthofen’s personal diary. Richthofen reveals himself as an efficient and ruthless commander with no sympathy for the Basque and Republican civilians, yet he shows little interest in bombing as a psychological weapon. When Richthofen planned the raid, it appears neither he nor any other German officer was aware of Guernica’s symbolic significance for the Basques.

Richthofen visited Guernica shortly after the town fell to the Nationalists. In his diary he took note of the Basque parliament building and the “Holy Oak” (under whose branches Basques had elected their representatives since the Middle Ages) as he wrote what reads like a travelogue describing the part of the town that survived the bombing. In fact, it would be surprising that these two important symbols of Basque nationalism were not targeted if the purpose of the bombing had been to demoralize the Basques. In his diary entry, Richthofen seems more interested in the tactical success. The town center had been “leveled,” he noted, and “the city was completely closed to traffic for twenty-four hours.” He was excited by the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe’s new 250-kilogram bombs, and he nearly gushed about the EC B 1 bomb fuse used by the Condor Legion, writing, “It seems to have worked splendidly!”

MYTH: Guernica caused massive civilian casualties.

TRUTH: The Basque and Spanish Republican governments had every reason to exaggerate the civilian casualties at Guernica to gain world sympathy. Their account of the attack made for some very powerful propaganda for the Republican cause. In the decades since World War I, air power theorists and advocates such as Italian general Giulio Douhet had prophesied that future war would see whole cities destroyed by aerial bombing. A large body of air power literature drawing on the “best” scientific analysis predicted that bombing would result in massive casualties. A British scientist, Lord J. B. S. Haldane, predicted in 1938 that a German air attack on London might produce 20 fatalities for every ton of bombs dropped. (The actual figure in World War II was about one fatality per ton.) Haldane also warned that a relatively small German bomber force could kill 50,000 to 100,000 Londoners in a few days.

With a public conditioned to such apocalyptic forecasts, the idea that one-third of Guernica died in the bombing was uncritically accepted. Though the initial Times story mentioned “hundreds” of deaths, Europe and the United States accepted without hesitation the official casualty figure of 1,654 dead released by the Basque government. For years after the civil war, the Franco regime, responding to the worldwide condemnation of the attacks, denied that Guernica had been bombed and prohibited discussion or research of the attack. Secret police expunged evidence of the bombing, such as death certificates and hospital and church records. Ironically, this whitewash suppressed the facts that would have proved that their attack was not nearly so horrible as the world believed.

Surprisingly, the original tally of 1,654 dead is still routinely cited in history books. If the figure is correct, the Condor Legion attack resulted in approximately 41 fatalities per ton of explosives. That is an astonishing casualty rate—indeed, it is four times the rate of the most devastating aerial raids carried out in Europe in World War II. In July 1943, for example, Hamburg saw approximately 7.5 fatalities per ton of bombs dropped by the Royal Air Force. The American and British bombing of Dresden in February 1945 resulted in as many as 10.2 fatalities per ton of bombs.

It is impossible to believe that Guernica casualty rates topped those from World War II; the technology of bombs and armaments had only improved over the years. Using World War II bombings as a guide, we can suggest that the Guernica attack at most killed 7 to 12 people per ton of bombs—a total of 300 to 400. Such an analysis is bolstered by the Canadian television series Turning Points of History, which in 2003 examined the raid and interviewed survivors. In the documentary, historians at a museum in Guernica itself set the death toll from the attack at “about 300.”

The myths of Guernica promulgated by the mass media of the day had wholly unintended consequences. Many Western journalists used the attack as a symbol to awaken the public to the danger of Nazi Germany. Ironically, they did more to promote a deep fear that Germany could easily destroy London or Paris by air attack—a fear that made governments more willing to accept German demands.

In fact, the attack on Guernica ultimately proved of enormous advantage to the Third Reich. The sensational press coverage gave the impression that Guernica was a city instead of a small town. The Luftwaffe of 1937 was seen as powerful enough to wipe whole cities off the map—something far beyond the capability of the German air force at that time. The press and public had been conditioned to expect future wars with “terror bombings” and destruction of this magnitude. In Spain, it appeared that the future had arrived; Guernica was merely a test run for a doctrine of total war that Germany was perfecting. Harold MacMillan, then a member of Parliament and later prime minister of Britain, remarked in the 1960s about the common perceptions of air power at the time of Guernica: “We thought of air warfare in 1938 as people think of nuclear warfare today.”

As Hitler moved on Europe, he put to good use the popular misconceptions about the power of the Luftwaffe. Preparing to annex Austria to the German Reich, for example, he played up the Luftwaffe’s reputation for destructive bombing. In February 1938 Hitler invited Austrian chancellor Kurt Schussnigg to Berchtesgaden in the Alps to deliver Germany’s demands. Using an intimidation technique that would have made the Mafia proud, Hitler also invited General Sperrle—the Condor Legion officer who had just taken over the command of the Luftwaffe in southern Germany—as a luncheon guest. During the meal, Sperrle talked to the Austrian chancellor about the German air force in Spain. The threat was clear: Surrender, or Vienna might suffer Guernica’s fate. The Austrians quickly capitulated.

As tensions mounted over Hitler’s next round of territorial demands—the large Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia— Britain and France weighed their military options to resist Hitler. France, sheltered behind its Maginot Line, did not fear the German army; Britain, separated from the Continent by the Channel, felt safe from any ground forces. Yet both nations saw the German Luftwaffe as an immediate and dangerous threat.

As the French cabinet debated the appeasement policy, it heard extravagant estimates of the civilian casualties Germany might inflict through bombing. The French intelligence service greatly overestimated Luftwaffe and aircraft production. In the summer of 1938, as Hitler precipitated a crisis over the Sudetenland, French air force general Henri-Fernand Dentz predicted that “French cities would be laid in ruins” in a war. One cabinet member said, “Our towns will be wiped out, our women and children slaughtered.”

During the Munich Crisis in September 1938, fully one-third of the residents of Paris evacuated the city to avoid possible German air bombardment.

In Britain, the cabinet debate over whether to resist Hitler’s aggression also focused on an exaggerated German aerial threat. The military staffs predicted—just a year after Guernica—that if war came Britain could expect 500 to 600 tons of bombs a day for up to two months. When the cabinet received the report on Luftwaffe capabilities, Dominion Secretary Malcolm MacDonald declared, “We are not strong enough to risk a war. It would mean the massacre of women and children in the streets of London. No government could possibly risk a war when our anti-aircraft defences are in so farcical a condition.” Thanks in part to such sentiments, Sudetenland was handed over to the Nazis in 1938, and the rest of Czechoslovakia was occupied in 1939 without a shot being fired.

Guernica was not the sole reason for Britain and France’s disastrous policy of appeasement. The program of Nazi aggression that added Austria and Czechoslovakia to the Third Reich and led to French and British humiliation was long in the making. But the false perceptions of German air power that Guernica popularized, as well as the myths about casualties and the destructive capabilities of air power, all played key parts in furthering Hitler’s aggression.


Originally published in the Summer 2010 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here