Special Feature: The nature and rationale of the Gernika bombing

December 19, 2013
The town of Guernica after the April 26, 1937 bombing.

The town of Guernica after the April 26, 1937 bombing.


The bombing of Gernika is a very complex event. In what follows I try to respond to one of its most critical aspects, the nature of the bombing. I will also present a topic  intimately connected with the history of the bombing and of great relevance: its negation as a result of the Franco dictatorship’s propaganda policy – an official denial that Gernika had been bombed — and the later historical reductionism to which this historical fact is still being subjected. This all adds up to a rather complete and comprehensive view of the significance of Gernika in the history of terror bombings. The present work summarizes two books that have been published after more than six years of research during which I collected, analyzed and studied more than 12,000 documents from various Basque, Spanish, French, British, North American and Italian archives and which, duly organized, catalogued and saved, are found today in the Documentation Centre on the Bombing of Gernika (Centro de Documentación del Bombardeo de Gernika.) (1) (For a Spanish version of this article with footnotes, click here.)


The bombing of Gernika took place on April 26, 1937, between 4:20 PM and 7:40 PM. It was the work of the Condor Legion, a special unit of the Luftwaffe at the service of General Franco, led by General Hugo Sperrle from November 6, 1936 to October 31, 1937 (2). The bombing was organized by Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, Chief of Staff of the Condor Legion between January 1937 and October 1938 (3). Even though at present there is no documentary evidence to establish the exact number of planes that took part in the attack, the information we have indicates that 24 German bombers and 19 fighter planes plus 3 Italian bombers and 13 fighter planes participated (4). This represents a total of 59 planes (27 bombers and at least 32 fighter planes, some of which carried out more than one mission over Gernika that day): 20% of all rebel aviation in the entire Iberian Peninsula in April 1937 (5). Altogether this constitutes a force of at least 127 men, a minimum of thirty-one Italians (6) and about ninety-six Germans (7). The approximate average age of the crews was about twenty-three. The reconnaissance planes that flew over Gernika that day (at least three Italian IMAM Romeo Ro.37 from the Logroño air base and an indeterminate number of German planes from the bases at Burgos and Gasteiz) should be added to these 59 planes. Between 31 and 41 tons of bombs were dropped, many of them incendiary bombs, completely laying waste to Gernika’s town center: 271 buildings — 85.22% of all  buildings — were totally destroyed. (Only 1% of the buildings were not affected.) It was the most destructive bombing of the war in Euskadi and the one that claimed the greatest number of victims in a single attack during the entire war between 1936 and 1939.

Even if Gernika was not the first town to suffer a terror bombing, given that at least a thousand cities were bombed between 1849 and 1936, (8) advances in aeronautical engineering during the arms race of the 1930s, combined with the fact that this war weaponry was now in the hands of a regime capable of making indiscriminate use of it, made it possible for first time during the war in Euskadi that the German command could adopt an objective of completely destroying a town. Thus Gernika was the first town that was the object of bombing conceived as a military experiment. Gernika was also the first place to suffer  large-scale bombing through the massive use of incendiary bombs, utilizing a specific mixture of explosives and according to a plan of attack that the Luftwaffe would use in other parts of Europe during the Second World War: a combination of Carpet Bombing (saturation bombing) and Shuttle Bombing (continuous bombing by an aerial attack train). This system consists of massive bombing of a target by means of an uninterrupted chain of groups of bombers that keep launching their cargo in several waves during a prolonged period of time across an air corridor (carpet).  The technique allows for a greater density of fire over a target, given that the combination of explosive cargo is launched within the margins of a narrow air corridor formed by three or more planes flying in a V formation.

Guernica de Pablo Picasso

Guernica de Pablo Picasso

With an average of 1500 to 1700 kilograms (3306 – 3747 lbs.) of cargo per bomber, between 31,000 and 41,000 kilos (68,343 – 90,390 lbs.) of bombs were dropped on Gernika’s little  town center (less than one square kilometer or .38 square miles) where there were between 10,000 and 12,000 people (9). It was not unusual, since in the attack on mount Montxetegi on April 4, for example, Richthofen had ordered the launching of 60,000 kilos (132,277 lbs.) of bombs until the mountain was converted into a “horrendous sea of flames and smoke,” as he wrote in his diary. As we have noted, two types of bombs were used over Gernika to ensure total devastation, explosive bombs that cracked the roofs and walls and incendiary bombs whose liquid penetrated the cracks opened by the explosive bombs, burning everything. Given that the bombers could carry up to 3000 kilos (6613 lbs.) of weight and keeping in mind that the Evelmag bomb carriers could not carry more than a maximum of 1500 to 1700 kilograms (3306 – 3747 lbs.) of bombs placed vertically, Richthofen ordered that the fuselage of the bombers be filled with boxes of incendiary bombs that would be thrown from the planes by hand over Gernika. (10) Since there are no records of the number of bombs that were carried that day, it is very difficult to calculate the exact number of tons of bombs and the proportion of incendiary bombs that Richthofen used during the attack, which possibly exceeded 65%. In any case, Richthofen himself confirmed in an internal report sent to Berlin on May 28, 1937 that 31 tons of bombs had been dropped on Gernika. (11) The report, which was found in Berlin by Professor Schüler-Sprinorum and sent to me by Professor Ángel Viñas, is highly reductionist, making reference to 50 mortal victims in the attack against Durango, for example, when we know that more than 300 people died in that bombing, most of them civilians. For this reason the figure of 31 tons must be cautiously considered as the lowest quantity of bombs dropped. It is very doubtful that the air command would fill the bombers with only half the cargo they could transport (making a total of 31 tons) and later order that boxes of bombs be added to be dropped from the planes by hand for the purpose of increasing the number of incendiary bombs. Likewise, it is very difficult to believe that the air command would send three bombers from the Soria air base with cargo that a single one could transport, above all taking into account that there were no enemy war planes around. For these and other reasons, the total cargo of bombs dropped will probably be closer to 41 tons. (12)

To be specific, the attack was carried out according to the following plan:

1. A squadron of seven Heinkel He51 fighter planes left Gasteiz at noon in order to machine gun and strafe the areas around Munitibar and Gerrikaitz with grenades (a less than one minute flight from Gernika) where they would find units of Basque soldiers in retreat. (13) This combat squadron flew over and machine-gunned the outskirts of Gernika within a 20 km (12 mile) radius during the whole morning, starting at 10:00 AM. But the attacks flared up again starting at 1:00 PM and lasted until about 3:00 PM.

2. When the attacks on the areas of Munitibar and Gerrikaitz ended, a Heinkel He51 fighter plane bombed Gernika’s town center at about 4:15 PM, releasing the six 10 kilo (221 lb.) bombs that it carried. In fact, it was a Heinkel He51 biplane that launched the first bomb over Gernika near the train station, very close to the Church of San Juan, as attested by the Basque soldier Jose Ramon Urtiaga, who was over Burgogana at an elevation scarcely 190 meters [623 feet] above the neighborhood of Ajangiz with Antxon Zalbalia, a soldier from Gernika, who saw this fighter plane drop the first bombs on the station “from above.” (In other words, the fighter plane descended to under 200 meters (656 ft.) to drop its bombs). Faustino “Basurde” Pastor, who shot his Skoda machine gun at that plane unsuccessfully gave the same testimony, since when he shot upwards, his gun jammed. It is important to stress that those bombs were not dropped on the Errenteria bridge, but right on the town center.

3. A few minutes later three planes from the experimental bombing squadron VB/88, a Dornier Do17 and two Heinkel He111s, left Burgos led by Rudolf von Moreau. (14) Moreau approached from the east (from mount Oiz) and dropped a series of 50 kilo (110 lb.) bombs on the Church of San Juanand the adjacent streets. (15) The two Heinkel 111s flew over Gernika from east to west, bombing the train station plaza (Geltoki Plaza) and the town center. (16) According to the majority of eye witnesses these bombers were escorted by fighter planes, very probably the five Fiat CR.32 fighter planes led by Lieutenant Corrado Ricci, who flew over Gernika and the surrounding area for approximately one and a half hours (from 4:20 PM to 6:00 PM). (17)

4. Immediately afterwards, three Savoia Marchetti SM.79s from Squadron 280 left Soria under the command of Captain Castellani, probably escorted by the Fiat C-32s that had set out from Gasteiz. (18) They arrived at Gernika at about 4:30 PM after von Moreau had already bombed the town (19) and they dropped a second load of bombs on the train station and immediately adjacent area (approximately thirty-six 50 kilogram [110 lb.] bombs), landing at about 5:05 PM. on return to Soria. (20) Moreau’s experimental flight attacked in an east-west direction because he had no fear of his presence being detected by the surveillance systems placed on nearby mountain tops. In fact, the objective of this first attack was to pack the people into the town center. The survivors’ logical reaction after this attack, which was similar to attacks suffered by other Basque towns thus far, was to head to the town center to rescue the survivors and try to put out the fires.

5. At this moment a group of about seven Heinkel He51 fighter planes led by Oberleutenant Harro Harder took off from Gasteiz with the mission of machine-gunning the survivors and keeping them inside the town center, within the limits of the fire. (21) The squadron of Messerschmitt BF 109 fighter planes led by Lieutenant Colonel Günther Lützow probably took off from Gasteiz a little later, at about 5:45 PM, just in time to accompany the first waves of Junker Ju52 bombers. According to the majority of eye witnesses, the fighter planes flew very low and machine-gunned civilians both in town and in the outskirts during the intervals between the bomber attacks (from 5:15 PM to 6:15 PM). (22) A second group composed of five Fiat CR.32 fighter planes led by Commander Viola flew over Gernika for approximately one hour from about 6:15 PM to about 7:30 PM.

6. Leaving from Burgos, three squadrons of Junker Ju52 K/88 bombers made up of a minimum of seven bombers each and led  by Karl von Knauer, Hans Henning von Beust and Ehrhart Krafft von Dellmensingen approached Gernika from the sea to the north at about 6:15 PM without being detected. In this case the bombers made a detour avoiding detection in order to take the town off guard, since after two hours of bombardment no one expected a massive new wave of bombing. Flying in a formation of three abreast with a distance of some 1,200 meters (1312 yards) between them, taking up an air corridor of about 150 meters (164 yards) in width and flying as low as 600 or 800 meters (1968 or 2624 ft.) above the ground, (23) twenty-one Junker JU52 arranged in seven groups bombed the center of Gernika, group after group. After having discharged their cargo completely during several passes over the town, the attackers returned to the Burgos air base.

7.  The Heinkel He51s and very probably also the Fiat CR.32s machine-gunned the area, dropping the last 10 kilo (221 lb.) bombs as well and at approximately 7:40 PM, the last fighter planes left Gernika in flames and completely destroyed.

In general the bombing of Gernika was consistent with the following plan:

1. One first small scale attack in a west-east direction alerted the population who ran to the shelters and stayed in them for about forty minutes. Most of the people reacted, as is to be expected, by going to the aid of the wounded and trying to extinguish the outbreaks of fires.

2. Immediately after the first attack the fighter planes approached and by machine-gunning from the air and dropping 10 (221 lb.) kilo bombs, they forced people to stay within the town center or in the shelters.

3. A second large scale bombing in successive waves across the same 150-meter wide air corridor swept the town from north to south and Gernika started to burn massively.

4. After a brief interval the survivors tried to escape from the town center, so the fighter planes made sure that they stayed within the perimeter of the town’s fire and that those who had not died from machine gun fire or from the conflagration would be incinerated or asphyxiated, or would die under the rubble, since the high temperatures caused a serious lack of oxygen in the town center.

The ruins of Gernika. (Le Petit Journal, 30 April 1937.)

The ruins of Gernika. (Le Petit Journal, 30 April 1937.)

If the town had been had been a military objective and the civilians, the wounded, or the people in the shelters had been soldiers, it would have been possible to keep them within the perimeter of town’s fire by means of machine gunning, which in turn would have allowed the infantry to advance unobstructed and quickly take the ruined town by assault, with almost no resistance. But this was a trial run and just as Richthofen wrote in his war diary, the attack was a great “technical success,” since Gernika was completely destroyed and the attack succeeded in keeping the main part of the population covered, immobilized inside the perimeter of the town’s fire during the three long hours that it lasted, and causing a very high level of material destruction and a great number of human casualties. The same technique would be used by the Luftwaffe in Warsaw and – with some variations, such as the use of parachute assault troops – also in Rotterdam. Richthofen himself led one of the attack groups against Warsaw, where the bombing followed the same plan as in Gernika, but on an incredibly larger scale.

The bombing of Gernika is one of the first long duration bombings recorded to date. The town was strafed by three successive waves of bombers and fighter planes during nearly three and a half hours, with hardly any interruption. Richthofen applied to the town the tactical bombing technique he had been trying out on the front line since the beginning of the spring campaign on the Basque front, turning  tactical bombing into terror bombing. That explains the fact that the day after the bombing the commanders of the three allies’ armies, the Spanish, German and Italian, asked the Basque government to surrender its troops. The idea was that a similar bombing would undermine the morale of the Republican command in Euskadi. This is not what happened. On the other hand, Goering succeeded in convincing Hitler that carpet bombing of open towns was the most essentially national-socialistic weapon, the true hammer of Thor. A weapon, moreover, that was only in the hands of the Luftwaffe: only the air force was capable of destroying a city that was away from the coast and the front lines. The bombing of Gernika in particular and aerial bombing of ships and land units in general allowed Goering to rise to become the Reich’s second strong man when he convinced Hitler that aviation was the weapon that would decide “the next war,” the Second World War.

Gernika 1937, a terror bombing

After three and a half hours of bombing and having dropped between 31 and 41 tons of bombs, the so-called main target, the Errenteria bridge, 20 meters (65 ft.) long, was not even touched.  Moreover, some of the main witnesses protected themselves under precisely this bridge during the bombing. Jesús Salas and Ferdinando Pedriali have noted that even though the Errenteria bridge was in point of fact the main target of the National Aviation (aviación nacional), due to the technical limitations of planes of that era, it is not surprising that the bombers were off the mark. (24) In fact according to Salas, from the total of 32 large-size bomb strikes recorded in Gernika, 27 were more than 250 meters (273 yards) from the bridge. (25) These authors confirm that the bombers dropped their bombs from the astronomical heights of 3,800 meters (12,467 ft.) while Richthofen himself stated in May 1937 that Gernika had been bombed from a height of between 600 and 800 meters (1968 – 2624 ft.).

Even though the official sources of General Franco and the Germans denied that Gernika had been bombed, some military media leaked news of the attack, making it pass for a strategic bombing whose objective was to destroy the Errenteria bridge, about 20 meters (65 ft.) long and scarcely 10 meters (33 ft.) wide. (26) The reports were in response to the diplomatic necessity of giving an explanation in light of an appeal from the western democracies and the international impact of the bombing: notice of it filled the editorials, first pages and columns of hundreds of newspapers in Europe and America. Richthofen’s report to Kendelán, signed in Burgos on August 9, 1937 is riddled with falsehoods. In a display of cynicism, Richthofen stated that incendiary bombs were dropped as a signal to show the infantry that the bombing was over and to show them the order to advance. (The infantry forces were about 20 kilometers away and therefore not in a position to take Gernika or to see those so-called signals).  He also stated that three fast bombers were launched on the town during an extended period of time (in reference to the first phase of the bombing led by Moreau), flying at medium altitude, in order to “forewarn the area” and it was that only later that they dropped bombs on their targets “with quite good aim.”  This was all about 45 minutes before the general attack. (27) Richthofen also stated that observers of these planes spread the news that Gernika was burning with great intensity at different points before the first German bombardment, implying that Basque nationalists had burned the town and that  because of the smoke caused by that fire, when the main body of the Junker Ju52 formation bombed the town “it was quite difficult to observe the targets from above,” which would explain why they did not demolish the bridge. In closing, Richthofen literally stated that days after the occupation of Gernika by the national troops, “the city was bombed up to four times by the red air force and also shelled for quite some time by the red artillery.” And he stated: “the insignificant quantity of our own bombs that fell inside the city cannot in any way have produced the destruction found there.” (28) In conclusion, Richthofen gave assurances that the  destruction of Gernika was mainly due to fires set by the Republicans and that no photographs existed. Richthofen undoubtedly lied shamelessly, knowing that General Kindelán, air force chief of the pro-coup side, was aware that the Basque government did not have planes, much less bombers, available in the area. This suggests that it was a document meant for third parties, probably the civilian or military authorities of governments involved in the non-intervention system.

According to Richthofen’s report, signed three months after the attack, i.e., once the incident had already been turned into an event that had international impact, the attack order specified that the town of Gernika “must be respected.” Something similar is reflected in the attack order to Soria’s Italian units (Ordine d’operazione No. 48), which establishes that the target is the Errenteria bridge and literally underlines “the town, for obvious political reasons, should not be bombed.” (29) It is certainly hard to find similar orders in which the need to respect a town is stressed so emphatically.  The reference to “obvious political reasons,” whatever they were, is also highly suspicious since on April 25, 1937 no one suspected that the bombing of Gernika was going to turn into an event of international importance in a matter of days. Finally, in light of what actually occurred – the town was destroyed and the bridge was not even touched – and keeping in mind that witnesses of the bombing saw the Italian bombers drop their bombs right on the town center, it has to be acknowledged that there is evidence that the order could have been drawn up or modified after the fact.

Pete T. Cenarrusa, a sponsor of the sister cities of Boise and Gernika, a pilot and pilot instructor during the Second World War and an expert in dive-bombing who was familiar with the use of bombers of that era has emphatically stated, after having observed the location and dimensions of the current Errenteria bridge and having studied the structure of the old one, that a static target like Gernika’s old bridge could perfectly well be hit with a 250 kilo (551 lb.) bomb by dive-bombing like he did, piloting his barely manageable Curtiss SB2C Helldiver:

As a Curtiss pilot and dive-bombing instructor, I attest that the destruction of a static military target of the dimensions of the Errenteria bridge requires one single ground attack plane designed to carry out dive-bombing, like the Junker Ju87 Stuka or the Henschel 123 models that were at the disposal of the Condor Legion since the summer of 1936. The number of planes involved in the bombing of Gernika, the flight formation they assumed, and the mixture of explosives dropped on the town, the constant machine-gunning of the population and that fact that incendiary bombs were used – in addition to the expense involved in the mobilization of that air force – ensure that the target was not the Errenteria bridge mentioned and that, as a result, it was not a case of strategic bombing but rather a terror bombing whose objective was massive destruction of the town. (30)

It is known that at the beginning of 1937 the Condor Legion had the Junker Ju87-A Stuka and Henschel 123 contingent at their disposal and that Richthofen was familiar with them. As Cenarussa affirms, those planes were designed to destroy static targets, such as bridges or defensive positions and even smaller dynamic targets, such as tanks. (31) No example exists in the course of the Second World War (or before, or afterwards) of an attempt to destroy a bridge like the Errenteria bridge by using such a bombing technique and such an extravagance of technical means.  It is simply irrational to attempt to destroy a bridge through aerial machine-gunning. Furthermore, the only three bombers from the Burgos and Gasteiz bases that Richthofen decided not to use were precisely the four Henschel 123s that were specifically designed for those purposes. (32)

If in fact the attack was made with the intention of blowing up the bridge, it would have to be explained why there were so many tons of explosives and such abundant use of incendiary bombs, why the bombers adopted their flight formation, why there was a mass of fighter planes and why the civil population was machine gunned for more than three hours. Moreover, it would also have to be explained why Alfons Kössinger and other members of the Condor Legion have stated that they were ordered to do an exhaustive study of the ruins, including aerial photographs. They were also ordered to remove all the evidence, which logically included the dead bodies. And to maintain the most absolute silence or, to deny the facts. (34) It would also have to be explained why the Spanish government denied for decades that Gernika had been bombed. (35) This all shows, far beyond any reasonable doubt, that it was in fact a war experiment: a terror bombing. In any case and regardless of the motivation, crushing a town with three war hospitals and thousands of refugees, mostly civilians, for three hours in order to block troops from crossing a bridge is an atrocity.

As he wrote in his diary, Richthofen believed that the Luftwaffe’s fundamental mission on the battlefield was not exclusively to bomb the front lines, as Mola frequently expressed, since many of the primary war objectives in reality depended on rearguard positions. The colonel wrote in his diary that one of the five basic objectives of aerial forays was to destroy the enemy’s morale by bombing the population. The doctrine of total war conceived by the Italian author Giulio Douhet in his book Il dominio dell’ aria (1921) was adapted and developed by the German regime between 1933 and 1944. In fact, Major Hellmuth Felmy, chief of the of the Reichswehr air office before the creation of the Luftwaffe and condemned in Nuremberg for war crimes, ordered Richthofen to study General Douhet’s concepts of aerial warfare.  Richthofen was finally assigned to Italy for two and a half years between 1929 and 1932 as an German air force attaché. (36) According to the doctrine, it is necessary to place everything at the disposition of the army during an armed conflict and at the same time to take the war to the rearguard, the civil population, which potentially or materially is part of the manpower that nourishes the front. As Stanley Baldwin, the British parliamentarian stated in 1932, in view of the political program of the Nazi party and the expansionist policy of the Italian and Japanese regimes, “I think it is well also for the man in the street to realize that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through(…). The only defense is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves. (37) A terror bombing, then, is an attack on a target and its goal – aside from its strategic value – is to cause the greatest level of material destruction and the greatest possible number of victims in order to break the enemy’s morale and bring about its surrender. This was something that Richthofen knew and had noted in his war diary and that he carried out on repeated occasions during the course of the Second World War, following the same plan of attack that was rehearsed in Gernika.

Despite not having touched the bridge and not having succeeded in the determined advance toward Gernika and, as a result, not having succeeded in surrounding the battalions of Basque soldiers — in other words, despite not having achieved even one of the alleged strategic objectives of the bombing — Richthofen noted in his diary that the bombing had been a great “technical success.” At the same time, Richthofen’s attitude after this apparent failure is surprising.  It might be presumed that the commander, having confirmed that the bridge had not been destroyed and that the alleged initial plan had not been fulfilled, would take certain initiatives to correct errors that might have been committed on the 26(th) and, as a result, succeed in those objectives on the 27th. But as he recorded in his war diary in his own handwriting, the units advanced on Gernika calmly, very slowly and with little energy and after dinner, Richthofen said, he decided to take a “lovely walk” along the coast of Deba and end the day by spending the evening playing cards with Sperrle and Colonel Erwin Jaenecke in the picturesque Basque town of Zarautz.

Material consequences of the attack

The bombing of Gernika was emphatically denied by the authorities from the governments involved in the attack, i.e., the Spanish government led by General Franco, and the German and Italian regimes. Until the dictator’s death in 1975 the Spanish government officially maintained that Gernika had been burned by the Basques themselves. This lengthy era of denial of the historical facts turned the bombing of Gernika into a paradigm case of negation and later, historiographical reductionism. There is not one single particular of the history of the bombardment that is not subject to polemic, for example, who gave the order to attack? What was the objective and what was the nature of the bombing? How many planes participated; how many bombs were dropped; how many victims did the bombing claim and finally, what was the level of material destruction?

In this sense there are still historians who argue that the bombing was planned and executed by the Italian and German commanders without the knowledge of the Spanish generals Franco, Emilio Mola and Alfred Kendelán (hard to believe if we keep in mind that it involved 20% of the total number of planes in the entire Iberian Peninsula available to the Spanish rebel command), that the objective of the bombing was to bomb the bridge in Errenteria or else to block the path of the Basque troops in retreat through Gernika; that the maximum number of planes that took part in the attack was 39; that a maximum of 28 tons of bombs were dropped; that the number of fatalities was between a dozen and 126 or, in the worst case, not more than two hundred; and that the level of material destruction was around 71% of the town’s buildings. Without exception, all of these items contradict the material evidence available to us and, furthermore, in most cases they are based on omission or discrediting of the documentary evidence that we have.

The town of Guernica after the April 26, 1937 bombing.

The town of Guernica after the April 26, 1937 bombing.

Let us look at an example. The first edition of Guernica, a book by Spanish air force general Jesús Salas, appeared in 1987. (38) It has been the source of a great number of works of a markedly reductionist nature during recent decades. In his book Salas argues that General Franco knew nothing of the bombing, given that there exists no written order from him for Gernika to be bombed. Salas extends that logic to General Emilio Mola, chief of the Army of the North, and to General Alfredo Kindelán, chief of the rebel air force. He asserts that it was a bombing planned and executed by Germans and Italians, even though he avoids mentioning that no written order from the German or Italian commanders ordering the destruction of Gernika exists either. It is simply unthinkable to accept that the rebel army concentrated 20% of the planes available in the entire Iberian Peninsula over a single point and that the high command and the chief of aviation were not informed. (39) Besides, we know that on the very morning of the bombing, Richthofen met with Colonel Juan Vigón, chief of staff of the Navarre Brigades of the Army of the North, to finalize the details of that day’s operations, including the bombing of Gernika. Salas notes in his book that 39 planes took part in the bombing. (40) Nevertheless, in telling about the bombing he mentions 54 planes. This is because Salas does not include the first group of Heinkel He51s led by Harro Harder in the list of planes that attacked Gernika , contending that the twelve planes did not attack the town center of Gernika itself, but attacked the surrounding area, the town’s immediate outskirts. With the same reasoning, he does not include the five Fiat CR.32s led by Corrado Ricci that according to the report ”flew over the Durango front,” less than a one minute flight from Gernika. We might think that the author did not have enough information from the archive in 1987, but in the 2012 edition of his book he repeats the same idea with the same information and identical reflections. (41) Salas states in the 2012 edition of his book that a total of 28.22 tons of bombs (42) were dropped, completely ignoring – i.e., without mentioning – the document that Richthofen himself signed stating  that 31 tons of bombs were dropped on Gernika. Salas mentions that 71% of the buildings were totally destroyed (and that, in addition, 7% were severely damaged). (43) The basis of the author’s  information is a propagandistic report known as the Herrán Report, written by the authorities of the Franco regime, that was published in English in order to be distributed in the United Kingdom; its conclusion is that Gernika was burned because it was dynamited by the Basques themselves. In this case the author is even more arrogant when he states that a total of 271 buildings were completely destroyed, citing a report by the architect Gonzalo Cárdenas, the person in charge of the agency known as Devastated Regions (Regiones Devastadas) that was responsible for the Gernika’s reconstruction. Given that Cárdenas says that there were 318 buildings in Gernika and given that the 271 that were totally destroyed represent 85.22% of 318 and not 71%, Salas is including buildings in the villages and neighborhoods in Gernika’s surrounding area in his total count of buildings in Gernika, increasing the total to about 364 buildings, thus achieving 74.4%, a figure not far from 71%. Whoever consults Devastated Regions’ plans in the Centre of Documentation on Gernika will see them in writing and will be able to verify in the attached maps that there were 318 buildings in Gernika in 1937, not 364 (or 492 as Salas also ventures in his book, adding buildings from the entire region of Gernika).

Perhaps the most dramatic case of negation or reductionism in what continues to be the focus of the history of the bombing of Gernika is the number of fatalities. The government of Euskadi recorded 1,654 fatalities between April and June 1937, even though it calculated that the number of people who lost their lives there was more than 2,000, but that since the town had fallen into enemy hands at noon on April 29, they had not had time to get a complete record. Thirty-eight people who were in Gernika during the bombing or afterwards, many of them collaborating in the work of collecting and counting the dead bodies, and who gave testimony at that time independently and without censorship, testified that more than 1,000 people had lost their lives in Gernika, with the exception of George Steer, who counted 800 victims. José Labauria, the mayor of Gernika and Eusebio Arronategi, a town priest, who were in Gernika during the bombing and the days afterwards counted more than one thousand dead and expected that that more would be found after the rubble was removed. Other eye witnesses, such as the renowned British journalist Noel Monks, a reporter for the Daily Express, wrote and signed in their own handwriting that they had “seen” hundreds of dead bodies. Another Journalist, Keith Scott Watson, a correspondent for The Star and the Daily Herald newspapers corroborated this. When the rebel General Queipo de Llano denied that Gernika had been bombed and accused Monks of being a “drunk,” the editor of the Daily Express ordered Monks to return to Gernika the next day (April 27th), and he did so.  Monks stated, “I just returned from Gernika. I can swear that Franco’s German aviators bombed Gernika, killing a thousand countrymen.(…) I saw bodies in the fields, hit by machine gun bullets. (…) I returned to Gernica at dawn. I saw 600 dead bodies. Nurses, little boys, farmworkers, little girls, old women, babies. All dead, destroyed and mutilated.” (44) He not only wrote the article, but also asked that his handwritten signature be reproduced in that article. Along with these 38 statements that represent 100% of the testimony that we have to date, there are hundreds of additional later statements, articles in the press and other records that have echoed the figure given by the Basque government.

But Salas thinks otherwise. He calculates the number of fatalities on the strength of the Herrán Report mentioned above and on the rebel governments’ records after the capture of Gernika. Given that, according to the author, no more than 120 deaths had been recorded, he thinks that about 120 people died. (45)He does not mention any of the 38 statements; he does not mention the figure given by the Basque government; he calls the mayor of Gernika an “alarmist,” and he says that Steer was “endowed with an overwhelming imagination and a pro-Basque and anti-Spanish passion beyond all measure.” He does not try to prove any of his epithets. Nor does he mention that the rebel authorities did not initiate the work of removing the rubble from the town center until February 1939 and that at the end of 1941 when, after having collected more than 60,000 cubic meters (78,477 cubic yards) of rubble during three years of work, the town center had still not been cleared of rubble, the new regime had not recorded even one single death. Salas also avoids mentioning that we have evidence that the regime’s authorities tried to erase any record of the deaths, going so far as to tear out pages that contained some of the names of the dead from the record book of the court of Gernika– and from other books. (46)

Salas dedicates scarcely four pages to the count of Gernika’s fatalities. (47) Other authors who have stated the same or a similar number of fatalities have used this as their basis, whether citing Jesús Salas or not, and of course without citing any of the original historiographical sources that we have, or any of the testimony. No one has demonstrated that the record given by the Basque government was inaccurate or that the 38 direct statements that we have mentioned were false or invalid. Even worse, no one has even tried to do so. But if out of curiosity we consult the articles about the bombing that are found in Wikipedia, we see that almost all of them echo the figure of 120 to 250 deaths, citing a few articles from the press as their complete references…Furthermore, we see that the versions in English and in the Basque language at least mention the record of 1,654 fatalities given by the Basque government, while it is not mentioned in the Spanish or German versions except deep inside a chapter and it is regarded as erroneous with hardly any explanation, citing sources from newspapers in most cases.

A sad lesson of reductionism and a tremendous punishment for the victims of that atrocity. (48)

To read this piece in Spanish and see the footnotes, click here.

Translated from the Spanish by Lyn Dominguez

Xabier Irujo Ametzaga teaches at the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.


1 The reader who is interested in this fact may also consult two books by this author, Irujo, Xabier, El Gernika de Richthofen.  Un ensayo  de  bombardeo   de  terror,  Gernikako Bakearen Museoa Fundazioa/Gernika-Lumoko  Udala, Gernika, 2012. 648 pp. ISBN: 978-84-936190-5-3. and Irujo, Xabier, Gernika 1937:  The  Market Day Massacre,  Nevada University Press, Reno, in press.

2 Richthofen refers to Sperrle with the pseudonym of “Sander”. The Legion was under the command of Helmuth Volkmann (1889-1940) between November 1, 1937 and October 1, 1938 and under the command of Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen from November 1, 1938 until the end of the war in April 1939.

3 The chief of staff was Alexander Holle until January 20, 1937, and later von Richthofen until November 1, 1938.

4 For a detailed description of the contingents that took part in the attack, see Irujo, Xabier, El Gernika de Richthofen:  Un ensayo  de bombardeo  de terror,  Gernikako Bakearen Museoa Fundazioa / Gernika-Lumoko Udala, Gernika, 2012, pp. 151-152.

5  Irujo, Xabier, El Gernika   de  Richthofen:  Un ensayo  de  bombardeo   de  terror,  Gernikako Bakearen Museoa Fundazioa / Gernika-Lumoko  Udala, Gernika, 2012, pp. 163-166.

6 The average crew for a Savoia Marchetti SM.79 was six and warplanes were piloted by a single pilot.

7 The average crew for a Dornier Do17 was four men; there were five for a Heinkel 111 and three for a Junker Ju52. Warplanes were piloted by one person.

8 The first bombings took place from dirigibles and, in fact, the first international law that prohibited bombing a population from the air dates from 1899; to be specific, in a clause inserted in the fourth section of the Hague Convention of 1899.

9 To consult information about the number of inhabitants of Gernika and the number of persons in the town on the afternoon of April 26, 1937, see, Irujo, Xabier, El  Gernika    de  Richthofen:  Un ensayo  de  bombardeo   de  terror,   Gernikako Bakearen Museoa Fundazioa / Gernika-Lumoko  Udala, Gernika, 2012, pp. 95-96.

10 Galland, Adolf, Die Ersten und Die Letzten. Die Jagdflieger Im Zweiten Weltkrieg, Franz Schneekluth, Darmstadt, 1953, pp. 49, 193-232 & 328. See the epilogue by Ángel Viñas in Southworth, Herbert R., La  destrucción  de  Guernica.  Periodismo, diplomacia, propaganda  e historia,  Comares Historia, Granada, 2013, pp. 649-652.

11 Schüler-Springorum, Stefanie, Krieg und  Fliegen. Die Legion Condor im Spanischen Bürgerkrieg, Ferdinand Schöning Verlag, Paderborn, 2010. The original document is found in Bundes-Archiv Zwischenarchiv Berlin-Hoppegarten,  German Federal Archives, Berlin-Hoppegarten intermediate archive. It was moved to the Freiburg archive, Federal Archive, Military Archive (Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv).  A copy of the document, found by Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, was given to the author by Ángel Viñas.

12  The reader can find a full explanation of the total number of tons of bombs launched (which I cannot include here for reasons of space) in the second edition of the book: Irujo, Xabier, El Gernika de Richthofen: Un ensayo de bombardeo  de terror,  Gernikako Bakearen Museoa Fundazioa / Gernika-Lumoko  Udala, Gernika, 2012, pp. 556-558.

13 Mathieu Corman, a correspondent for Ce  Soir  of París, mentioned seven planes machine- gunning Gerrikaitz at noon. The journalist George Steer also  mentioned the fighter plane attacks, since both were victims of the attack by a Heinkel He51 on the morning of April 26th. Members of the Goitiandia and Gerrikabeitia families of Munitibar have confirmed to me that the attack on Munitibar affected the most central part of the town, the crossroads, the church and the plaza in front of it. According to testimony from those who were interviewed, craters made by the bombs dropped by those fighter planes were still visible years after the attack.

14 According to Jesús Salas,  the two Heinkel 111s attacked at different times. According to this plan, at about 6:00 PM a  Heinkel 111 bomber escorted by five Fiat CR.32 fighter planes led by Corrado Ricci bombed the city. However, it is hard to explain why the three Italian SM.79 bombers and the first bombers from Moreau’s experimental unit flew without an escort, while a single Heinkel 111 was escorted in flight by five Italian fighter planes.

15 A Dornier Do17 could carry up to 1000kg. (2204 lbs.) of bombs, or twenty 50 kg. (1101 lb.) of bombs. Some of the most precise statements from eye witnesses recorded the first bombing at 4:20 PM. (Some witnesses mention 3:20 PM, probably because they did not adjust their watches, which should have been advanced one hour in accordance with the summer timetable.) In Cava  Mesa,  María  Jesús; Silvestre,  María; Arranz,  Javier, Memoria colectiva del bombardeo  de Gernika, Gernika Gogoratuz, Gernika-Lumo, 1996, p. 115.

16 According to the majority of  witnesses of the attack, the first bombing was carried out separately by two Heinkel 111s and one Dornier  Do17, one after the other, not in a formation of three like later the Junker Ju52  formation.

17 Coronel Richthofen wrote in his war diary that the experimental bomber squadron attacked first with three planes and Captain Castellani, chief of the Italian fighter plane units, wrote in his flight diary that he saw one solitary unidentified German bomber return from Gernika after having bombed the city the first time. Statement of  General Jesús Salas in Villa, Imanol,  Gernika, el bombardeo,  Idem4 & Expressive S.L., Bilbao, 2008.

18 The report signed by the commander of the Italian Air Base in Soria, Lieutenant Colonel Pilota, only alludes to the S.79 bombers.

19 In fact, Captain Castellani wrote that when there were ready to bomb, they saw a single German plane – one from von Moreau’s unit – leaving Gernika.

20 Successive waves of German bombers took off from Burgos, once the Italians had landed in Soria. As a result, the Italian bomber pilots were not witnesses of the bombing with explosive and incendiary bombs. A report about the flight by Lieutenant Acorsi, one of the Italian pilots, mentions the SM.79 bombers landing in Soria at 5:05 PM.

21   Apparently the Messerschmitt BF109s were mainly used as the bombers’ escort service, while theHeinkel He52s were mostly used for machine-gunning people on the ground. Despite this, several eye witnesses also describe monoplanes (BF109s) machine-gunning the population.

22 There were obviously no survivors left to machine-gun in the town center, which was already in flames; therefore the fighter planes aimed their attacks on the outskirts of the city and in the nearby area (attacking survivors hidden in the forest, fields, cabins or whatever other type of shelter there was in the surrounding areas), since their precise objective was to keep them within the perimeter of the fire. This is exactly what Mari Carmen Egurrola, a witness to the bombing, testified to the author.

23 Schüler-Springorum, Stefanie, Krieg und  Fliegen. Die Legion Condor im Spanischen Bürgerkrieg, Ferdinand Schöning Verlag, Paderborn, 2010. Ibid.

24 Villa, Imanol, Gernika, el bombardeo,  Idem4 & Expressive S.L., Bilbao, 2008, p. 94.

25 Salas Larrazábal, Jesús, Guernica, Rialp, Madrid, 1987, p. 158.

26 According to Castor Uriarte, the municipal architect of Gernika in 1937, the Errenteria bridge  was exactly 19.5 meters  (64 ft.) long and 9.5 meters  (31 ft.) wide. Uriarte, Castor, Bombas y  mentiras sobre Guernica: acusa su arquitecto municipal cuando la guerra, Gráficas Ellacuria, Bilbao, 1976, p. 44.

27 As we have seen, the lapse between this attack and the next phase of bombing was about an hour and a half, from approximately 4:50 PM to 6:15 PM.

28 Letter from Wolfram von Richthofen a Kindelán, signed in Burgos on August 9, 1937. The Documentation Centre on the Bombing of Gernika of the Gernika Peace Museum Foundation (Fundación Museo de la Paz) preserves a copy of Richthofen’s report. It is also shown in Villa, Imanol, Gernika, el bombardeo, Idem 4 & Expressive S.L., Bilbao, 2008, p. 93.

29 Salas Larrazábal, Jesús, Guernica, Rialp, Madrid, 1987, p. 189 and  annex 30.

30 Interview with Pete T. Cenarrusa at his house in Boise, Idaho. Monday April 18, 2010, from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM. Updated for the present article on July 2013.

31 To  cite just one example, on May 22, 1940 in the outskirts of Cambrai, the He123s attacked a unit of 40 French tanks in action  highly successfully, achieving direct hits on several of them and forcing the unit to retreat.

32 List of the planes of the Condor Legion in April 1937. Pinna, Pietro, Relazioni del General Pinna, Salamanca, April 17, 1937, p. 9. USAM, Busta 104, Fascicolo 8.

33 Kössinger, in an interview by Marc Bassets for the Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia, also stated that the pilots did not know what they were doing, that it was restricted information, and that they were deceived by the Nazi state. La Vanguardia, April 24, 2008.

34 Letter from Hans Henning von Beust, March 16, 1973, in Maier, Klaus A., Guernica. La intervencn alemana en España  y el “caso Guernica,” Sedmay, Madrid, 1976, p. 156.

35 Already in the decade of the 1960s, a historian from the late Franco era recognized the reality of the bombing, stressing that General Franco did not participate in the events and holding the Condor Legion solely responsible for the attack, which later gave rise to a lively historiographical debate.

36 Corum, James S., Wolfram von Richthofen. Master of the German  Air War, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2008, p. 92.

37 Gaskin, Margaret, Blitz: The Story of December 29, 1940, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Orlando (FL), 2006, p. 35.

38 Salas, Jesús,  Guernica, Rialp, Madrid, 1987.

39 For more detailed information in this regard see Irujo, Xabier, El Gernika de Richthofen: Un ensayo de bombardeo  de terror, Gernikako Bakearen Museoa Fundazioa / Gernika-Lumoko  Udala, Gernika, 2012, pp. 81-94.

40 Salas, Jesús,  Guernica, Rialp, Madrid, 1987, pp. 150 & 153.

41 Salas, Jesús, Guernica,  el bombardeo.  La historia frente al mito, Galland Books, Valladolid, 2012, pp. 135 & 153.

42 Salas, Jesús,  Guernica, Rialp, Madrid, 1987, p. 145.

43 Salas, Jesús,  Guernica, Rialp, Madrid, 1987, p. 163.

44 Monks, Noel, “I Saw the German Planes Bomb Guernica”, Daily Express, Tuesday, May1, 1937, p. 10.

45 Salas, Jesús,  Guernica, Rialp, Madrid, 1987, p. 163-167.

46 Unzueta, Humberto, “Gernikako bonbaketa. Hildakoak. 1937-4-26”, Gernika, 1992, pp. 21-22. And also Unzueta, Humberto, “Los muertos inoportunos,” Aldaba Gernika-Lumoko Aldizkaria, No 86, March -April, 1997, p. 42.

47 Ibid.

48 For a more extensive explanation about the calculation of the number of victims of the bombing of Gernika, see Irujo, Xabier, El Gernika   de Richthofen: Un ensayo de bombardeo  de terror,  Gernikako Bakearen Museoa Fundazioa / Gernika-Lumoko Udala, Gernika, 2012, pp. 257-301.




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