Due to a discussion on another board on that topic, I made some research, which I would like to discuss here.
Guernica in Fire
The Destrcution of Guernica by the Legion Condor from a Strategic Point of View
1 – the Myth Getting Started
2 – the Actual Planning
3 – the Actual Results
4 – the Terror-bombings in the Spanish Civil War from German Perspective
Notes (including sources and literature)
In 1936, the tensions between the conservative forces including the fascists and the left Popular Front including the communists were serious. With the latter gaining the majority in the parliament on February 16 1936, the tensions grew even bigger. Many conservative militaries of all ranks were openly regarding the legitimate state as dead, just like many other. After a period of strikes, terror and riots, the military finally revolted causing the Spanish Civil War. These Nationalists were massively supported by Italy and a bit by Germany (1), while the Republicans were supported by the Soviet Union massively and voluntaries from many countries including Germany (2). All of them were sending auxiliary forces. Although the Nazi-German contribution, the Legion Condor, was rather small in comparison (3), it became not only decisive but also most famous.
On April 26 1937, the air arm of the Legion Condor bombed the Basque city of Guernica. The city was brought to ruins, never before in Europe a city was destroyed like that from the air. It felt like the beginning of a new age, an age of air power dominating the wars, capable of bombing anyone into submission. (4)
1 – the Myth Getting Started
The Basques, being one of the few major forces opposing Franco not being communist or close it, enjoyed the sympathy of the western world, especially that of the USA. Their representatives found open arms when they met the press and told about the attack on their cultural center, that killed innumerable people and deliberately left out the factory outside the city producing war material. (5) The given body count of 1654 dead and 889 wounded people can still be found in many publications on the topic. German publications sometimes translate ‘casualties’ with ‘Tote’ (dead people), which makes the bombing looking even more brute. More horror stories of fighters chasing fleeing people or deliberately aiming for priests were published and Franco saw himself forced to counter the international outrage with his own propaganda, claiming the Basques themselves would have destroyed Guernica by fire (6).
Hitler, perfectly aware of the fear inflicted by the attack, used that fear of his air force during the Munich Agreements 1938 and later on (7). And after WWII nobody ever questioned the Germans being not only capable but willing of executing such a terror attack. Likewise, Picasso’s most famous painting “Guernica”, made with a clear agenda, further strengthened the notion of an assault on civilians.
So the ‘Myth’ of a German terror raid aiming for the “demoralization of the civil population” while “Guernica was not a military objective”(8) arose quickly and it is alive up to this very day (9). Often the bombing is labeled a cruel test run, made for the evaluation of terror attacks, their means and results. This is a popular view, although only a great overstressing and extensive construing of a Göring comment at the IMT almost ten years later (10). But the records of Wolfram von Richthofen, Oberstleutnant and Chief of Staff in 1937, his diary and the reports of the Legion Condor are openly available for everyone. The problem was, that they were not available before the 70ties. Books written before this time, such as Hugh Thomas (The Spanish Civil War, London 1961 e.g.), are therefore based on a very deficient base of sources, just like books basing on them.
2 – the Actual Planning
The Legion Condor was under direct command of General Franco, even despite Italian tries of interfering in this direct contact, which shows the value of this relationship to Franco (11). While Richthofen planned the air strike, the order came from Spanish Command (12)
Since the Legion Condor had no mission on preserving cultural heritage, there was no dedicated cultural historian with Richthofen and he was absolutely unaware of the cultural importance of Guernica to the Basques. It is not even to prove that he knew about the Basque parliament sitting there, actually it is rather unlikely seeing his tourist-like remarks on Guernica, when he got there. He even referred to the capitalist Basques as “die Roten” (Reds, Communists) (13)
But what Richthofen knew was the strategic importance of the city. He was a flying ace of WWI and enjoyed the reputation of a brilliant strategist, became the youngest Feldmarschall (Field Marshall) of the Wehrmacht, but he was known for his ruthlessness as well. The war was running badly for the Basques, only one decisive blow against their retreating forces and the Nationalists could advance to Bilbao, ending the war in the North. Richthofen planned this strike to be an air attack against the Renteria-suburb of Gernica with it’s roads and bridge. This city guarded the central and only road of retreat for the Basques east of Bilbao and 25 battalions were heading for Guernica or were already in position there, like the 18th Loyalists’. (14)
A precision dive bombing strike against the bridge was possible, but Richthofen knew all to well, how difficult a bridge was to hit and how fast a bridge could be set up again, especially when the city provides the necessary infrastructure. So the plan was to destroy not only the bridge, but also the streets and buildings around it, hoping the ruins would impede any movement of heavy arms. Actually, the bridge was not even the primary target (see below; 16) This is why an air strike with the level-bombers of the K/88 and VB/88, not dive bombers, was imperative. So two He111, one Do17 and 18 Ju52 plus three Italian SM79 were assigned for the mission. For fulfilling this task, the standard load-out of medium explosive bombs (250kg), light explosive bombs (50kg) and incendiaries (1kg) was ordered. The use of incendiaries may sound strange at first since a stone bridge was attacked. First, it should be stressed again, the bridge was not the sole target, moreover it was usual to drop incendiaries on infrastructure targets. There was a considerable psychological impact and, even more important, destroyed vehicles and the fire itself would impede any advance or repair. The aircrafts also flew in in small waves, hence there was no carpet bombing of the whole city, neither desired nor carried out. The dropped tonnage of bombs did not exceed the usual load-out weight of attacks against other bridges, actually it was rather low. The Legion dropped 57to on the bridge of Flix on August 5 1938 e.g. as opposed to 22to on April 26 (15).
This was the order as noted by Richthofen on April 26:
“Setzen sofort ein: A/88 und J/88 auf Straßenjagd im Raum Marquina-Guernica-Guerriciaz. K/88 (nach Rückkher von Guerriciaz), VB/88 und Italiener auf Straße und Brücke (einschließlich Vorstadt) [sic!] hart ostwärts Guernica. Dort muß
zugemacht werden, soll endlich ein Erfolg gegen Personal und Material des Gegners herausspringen. Vigon sagt zu, seine Truppen so vorzurücken, dass alle Straßen südlich Guernica gesperrt sind. Gelingt das, haben wir den Gegner um Marquina im Sack.“ (16)
[Starting at once: A/88 and J/88 for free fighter bomber mission on the streets near Marquina-Guernica-Guerriciaz. K/88 (after Returning from Guerriciaz), VB/88 and Italians for the streets and the bridge (including suburb) east of Guernica. There we have to close the traffic, if we finally want a decision against personal and material of the enemy. Vigon agrees to move his troops for blocking all streets south of Guernica. If this succeeds, we will have trapped the enemy around Marquina].
The official report of Legion Condor to Germany on April 26, which was top secret since Germany publicly prohibited any German citizen to fight in Spain, confirms this (17)
It is clear, that Richthofen not only planned to destroy the road of retreat, but also wanted to disrupt the enemy retreat as much as possible by the use of fighters, hunting down all movements on the streets. Indeed, fighters were to continue this mission and concentrated on Guernica on April 27, one day after the bombardment. They were shot by ground troops. Additionally some Bf109 had downed two interceptors (18).
Although the civil population was no concern of the Legion’s planning, thus endangered conscienceless, no piece of evidence reveals an aiming on purpose. H. Asmus remembered the day of the mission briefing, when everybody noticed how dangerous for Guernica the bombardment could be: “this was war, and nobody stopped to say >Wait a minute, there is town near that bridge.< Quite simply, the question of the proximity of Guernica did not come into our calculations” (19). The Italian bombers meanwhile were instructed to take care of not hitting Guernica (20). Also no concern was the factory outside the city, since Guernica should fall in Nationalists hands soon anyway.
3 – the Actual Results
The result was two edged: one the one hand, a vital target, the bridge was not hit. High Command was disappointed and asked for reasons, which were found in the insufficient aiming devices of the rather poorly modified Ju52-3m g3e ‘Behelfsbomber’ (makeshift solution bomber) (21). Their GV219 D bombsights were not appropriate to hit a target like a bridge in high level flight. So better bombsights were demanded and an even greater emphasis on hitting the target was put on. (22). The massive smoke also had caused many bombs to miss their destination and detonating in Guernica and destroying large parts of it. On April 28 Richthofen was informed about this, but he learned only later (see below) why (23).
On the other hand, the attack as a whole was successful, nothing could move in Guernica or Renteria for more than 24 hours and after that, one could hardly pass. Republican forces were trapped for a while. The Basque retreat came to a hold, Guernica – a strategically possible center point of Basque resistance – was given up without defending it. Richthofen only complained about the low speed of the Nationalist battalions in pursuit (24). Oberst Erwin Jaenecke reported later on May 18 1937: “Guernica [ist] ganz einwandfrei von den Italienern und am letzten Tage auch noch durch deutsche auf die Brücke und Straßenknotenpunkt bestimmte Bomben zerstört worden und, da in der Stadt im Gegensatz zum übrigen Spanien zum Häuserbau viel Holz verwendet wurde, in Flammen aufgegangen. Die Bewohner waren geflüchtet und konnten nicht löschen. Der heilige Baum, das Nationalheiligtum der Basken, ist unzerstört geblieben. An und für sich war Guernica ein voller Erfolg für die Luftwaffe. Die einzige Rückzugsstraße der ganzen roten Küste war durch den Brand und 2m hohen Schutt in den Straßen völlig versperrt.“ (25)
[Guernica has been destroyed by the bombs dropped by Italian and by Germans on the last day, aiming for the bridge and traffic junction, and, since the houses were made of wood for a part unlike the rest of the houses in Spain, it went up in flames. The inhabitants fled and did not attempt to put the fire out. The Holy Tree, the national sanctuary of the Basques, has not been hit. Actually, Guernica was a full success for the German Air Force. The only road of retreat of the communist coast was totally blocked by fire and debris, 2m high.”]
Later evaluations of the Luftwaffe confirmed this effect of the bombing (26). Something Richthofen had noticed as well as Jaenecke was the population of Guernica not even attempting to fight the fire as they fled. Also no effort to clean up the city was made after the attacks. He assumed propaganda reasons.
Another result was the death toll, although the true number might never be found out, more recent studies think the number given by the Basque officials is inflated (27).
However, the living quarters were not directly targeted. A heavy psychological impact, further boosted by propaganda, press stories and even German foreign policy under Hitler’s regime, is undeniable though.
The British Government with respect to the outrage caused by the press demanded an investigation by an international commission. Of course, nobody in the German government had any interest in such an investigation, but as a simple denial would look like an admission of guilt, the German foreign ministry answered differently. It unofficially agreed to an investigation if other ‘incidents’ of the Spanish Civil War would be investigated, too. The British government now officially agreed (not unofficially!) in order to out pressure on the matter, but Italy, France and the Soviet Union were very reluctant for their own involvements (28). So Britain stood very much alone and did not pursue any further actions, since another ‘incident’ – the continued illegal bombing of German control ships by republican planes and their following retaliation (29) – was more up to date.
4 – the Terror-bombings in the Spanish Civil War from German Perspective
To analyze the Guernica bombing and the claim, it would have been a terror attack according to the theories of Douhet (30), it is helpful to see how the Luftwaffe actually evaluated the use of these theories and the execution of them in the Spanish Civil War.
Strategic Bombing had not been neglected, under certain circumstances attacks on enemy resources were considered a viable way of winning the war. But attacks purely aimed on enemy civil population, it’s moral and habitations were generally prohibited (“Der Angriff auf Städte zum Zwecke des Terrors gegen die Zivilbevölkerung ist grundsätzlich abzulehnen“) from 1935 on (31), i.e. before the Spanish Civil War.
The Italian bombings of Barcelona e.g. had strengthened the will of the population to fight on as the German Ambassador noted . Therefore he confirmed with a practical example, what the Luftwaffe had thought in theory before (32). Fregattenkapitän Helmuth Heye from the Seekriegsleitung (Naval High Command) also noted this counterproductive effect, when civilian losses were high and stated that terror attacks are no means of winning a war for that reason (33).
Of course the Luftwaffe was not reluctant to bomb civilians for purely humanitarian reason, the leaders simply saw no reason to do so because they expected failure. Nevertheless, it was taken note of the effect of continued bombing of the working class resulting in lower morale and consequently resulting in less production. This was the only aspect of terror bombing party measured useful by the German Air Force after the experiences in Spain (34).
The attack on Renteria near Guernica was conducted with absolute ruthlessness, which is not exactly surprising. Nonetheless, there is nothing that proves an attack on the civilian population for the purpose of terror. This would not only contradict the doctrine of the German Air Force, there is also not a single piece of solid evidence indicating that terror was a desired effect, yet alone the most important. On the contrary, the planning of Richthofen was concise and logical aiming for the destruction of the bridge, streets and suburb as a possible road of retreat for the beaten Basque army, which moved exactly to Guernica. The destruction of Renteria was necessary, the destruction of parts of Guernica tragic.
The Myth of Guernica was employed and exploited by both victims and actor fors various political causes soon after, while hardly anyone looked at the factual reports and records, and it is still alive for that very reason.
“The Nationalists won territory, but the enemy had won the war of propaganda with Guernica” (35)
1. – on the Italian forces see Coverdale, J.: Italian Intervention in the Spanish Civil War, Princeton 1975
2. – on the Soviet forces see Payne, S.G.: The Spanish Revolution, London 1970; on the Americans see Eby, C.D. : Between the bullet and the lie. American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, New York 1969; to evaluate the numerous field reports of the volunteers see Ruhl, H.: Die Internationalen Brigaden im Spanische Bürgerkrieg, in: Militärgeschichtliche Mitteilungen 17 (1/75) [The International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War], p. 212 - 224
3. – only ca. 140 aircraft and 5000 men served in Spain, who they were rotated constantly. Thus in total about 19000 Germans served in Spain (cf. Proctor, R.L.: Hitlers Luftwaffe in the Spanish Civil War, Westport 1983, p.252f). Officially, the Reichsregierung prohibited any German citizen to participate in the war (cf. Gesetz zur Verhinderung der Teilnahme am Spanischen Bürgerkrieg, 18.02.1937, in: DocumentArchiv.de (Ed.), URL: http://www.documentarchiv.de/ns/1937/sp ... g_ges.html
[Law for the Prohibition of Participation in the Spanish Civil War])
4. – cf. Overy, R./Wheatcroft, A.: The Road to War, London 1989, p.304
5. – cf. Guttmann, A.: The Wound in the Heart. America and the Spanish Civil War, p.106
6. – cf. Dements of the Spanish Nationalist Government, in: Deutschland und der Spanische Bürgerkrieg 1936-1939, in: Bußmann, W. (Ed.): Akten zur deutschen auswärtigen Politik, Serie D 1937-1945 [Germany and the Spanish Civil War, in: Files on German Foreign Policy] [Akten], p.251.
7. – cf. Command of Air Fleet 2, final meeting on the map exercise, May 13 1939, in: BA/MA RL 7/42f [Archive of the Federal Republic of Germany/ Military Archive]
8. – Steer, G.: The Tragedy of Guernica, in: The Times London April 27 1937, from: from: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0, ... 48,00.html
9. – cf. Wikipedia, s.v. Guernica as an example of how the broad mass perceives the operation.
10. – cf. International Military Tribunal (Ed.): Der Prozeß gegen die Hauptkriegsverbrecher vor dem Internationalen Militärgerichtshof Nürnberg, 14. November 1945 bis 1. Oktober 1946, Vol. 9, Nürnberg 1948 [The Proceedings against the Main Criminals of War of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, November 14 1945 – October 1 1946], p. 317; see also Maier, K.A.: Guernica 26.4.1937. Die deutsche Intervention in Spanien und der "Fall Guernica", Freiburg 1977 [The German Intervention in Spain and the “Case Guernica“], p.9f and footnote 8
11. – cf. Coverdale, J.: Italian Intervention in the Spanish Civil War, Princeton 1975, p.334f
12. – cf. Telegram for the CO of Legion Condor, sent by HQ at Salamanca, in: Maier: Guernica 26.4.1937. Die deutsche Intervention in Spanien und der "Fall Guernica", Freiburg 1977, Appendix 6
13. – cf. Richthofen’s diary entry, April 30 1937, in: BA/MA N/671/2
14. – cf. Corum, J.S.: The Luftwaffe. Creating the Operational Air War, Lawrance 1997, p.199
15. – cf. Abendroth, H.H.: Guernica. Ein fragwürdiges Symbol, in: Militärgeschichtliche Mitteilungen 41 (1987) [Guernica. A Questionable Symbol], p.118; it should be noted that the real tonnage is not known today. Every number is based on estimations.
16. – Richthofen’s diary entry, April 26 1937, in: BA/MA N/671/2
17. – cf. Daily evening report of Legion Condor, April 26 1937, in: Maier: Guernica 26.4.1937. Die deutsche Intervention in Spanien und der "Fall Guernica", Freiburg 1977, Appendix 4
18. – cf. Richthofens diary entry, April 27 1937, in: BA/MA N/671/2; Proctor: Hitlers Luftwaffe in the Spanish Civil War, Westport 1983, p.128f.
19. – cited after Abendroth, H.H.: Guernica. Ein fragwürdiges Symbol, in: Militärgeschichtliche Mitteilungen 41 (1987), p.121
20. – ibid., p.113
21. – cf. Nowarra, H.J.: Die Deutsche Luftrüstung, Vol.3, Koblenz 1993 [The German Aerial Armament], p.63 for technical data
22. – cf. Corum, J.S.: The Luftwaffe. Creating the Operational Air War, Lawrance 1997, p.200
23. – cf. Richthofen’s diary entry, April 28 1937, in: BA/MA N/671/2
24. – cf. Richthofen’s diary entry, April 30 1937, in: BA/MA N/671/2. Since Joachim Trenkner (deliberately?) falsified this entry in his Article ‘Ziel vernichtet’ (in: Die ZEIT, 07/2003), the relevant part will be cited completely here: “Guernica, Stadt von 5000 Einwohnern, buchstäblich dem Erdboden gleichgemacht. Angriff erfolgte mit 250-kg- und Brandbomben, letztere etwa ein Drittel. Als die 1.Jus kamen, war überall schon Qualm (von VB, die mit 3 Flugzeugen angriffen), keiner konnte mehr Straßen-, Brücken- und Vorstadtziel [Sic!] erkennen und warf nun mitten hinein. Die 250er warfen eine Anzahl Häuser um und zerstörten die Wasserleitung. Die Brandbomben hatten nun Zeit sich zu entfalten und zu wirken. Die Bauart der Häuser: Ziegeldächer, Holzgalerie und Holzfachwerkhäuser, führte zur völligen Vernichtung. – Einwohner waren größtenteils eines Festes wegen außerhalb, Masse des Restes verließ die Stadt gleich zu Beginn. Ein kleiner Teil kam in getroffenen Unterständen um. – Bombenlöcher auf Straßen noch zu sehen, einfach toll. – Stadt war völlig gesperrt für mindestens 24 Stunden, es war die geschaffene Voraussetzung für einen großen Erfolg, wenn Truppen nur nachgerückt wären. So nur ein voller technischer Erfolg unserer 250er u. EC.B.1.“ Trenkner’s version, implying Richthofen would comment the utter destruction of Guernica with “einfach toll”, can be found here: http://zeus.zeit.de/text/2003/07/A-Wielun
25. – Report of Jaenecke’s official journey to Spain, May 18 1937, in: BA/MA M 1367/80604
26. – cf. Evaluation of Rügen (codename for the Legion’s mission), in: BM/MA RL 7/57
27. – cf. Ries, K./Ring, H.: The Legion Condor, p.63f
28. – cf. Abendroth, H.H.: Hitler in der Spanischen Arena. Die deutsch-spanischen Beziehungen im Spannungsfeld der europäischen Interessenpolitik vom Ausbruch des Bürgerkrieges bis zum Ausbruch des Weltkrieges 1936-1939, Paderborn 1973 [Hitler in the spanish arena. The Relations between Germany and Spain in the Area of Conflict of the European Policy from the Beginnings of the Civil War until the Outbreak of World War Two], p.162
29. – ships of many nations controlled the unobstructed evacuation of their citizens and the protection of their trade according to the international Non-Intervention Committee. The German ships were clearly marked with the flag of the non-intervention and their own national flag. After the bombing of the “Deutschland” and the death of 31 sailors, the Kriegsmarine attacked the Republican port of Améria in retribution.
30. – Douhet, G.: Il Domino dell’Aria, 1921
31. – Luftwaffendienstvorschrift 16 Luftkriegsführung, Berlin 1935 [Luftwaffe Regulation 16: The Conduct of Air War], 12
32. – cf. Stohrer’s report, in: Akten (like note 6), p.550
33. – cf. Report of Heye’s official journey to Spain, Berlin July 14 1938, in: BA/MA M/1385/80765, cited after Maier, K.A.: Guernica 26.4.1937. Die deutsche Intervention in Spanien und der "Fall Guernica", Freiburg 1977, p.67f
34. – cf. Maier, K.A.: Totaler Krieg und Operation Luftkrieg, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Vol. 2, Stuttgart 1971 [Total War and Operation Air War], p.59
35. – Proctor, R.L.: Hitlers Luftwaffe in the Spanish Civil War, Westport 1983, p.131