Spanish Civil War – April 1937

A couple of impressions of Madrid by international visitors in April 1937:

Helen Grant

The main impression on walking about Madrid is that nobody even thinks about danger. Nevertheless, the majority of the houses and shops in the Gran Via have been hit… The telephone building is marked on every storey by shells although the rapidity with which the effects of bombardment are cleared up gives a superficial appearance of order…. Although the guns roar almost continually and sometimes they are quite deafening, no one appears to take any notice.

Eleanor Rathbone

In these days of defeatism, it is something to have seen a great city full of men and women who throughout a year of privation, terror and suffering have looked death in the face without losing their courage, their complete confidence in the victory of their cause, or even their high spirits. The Civil War had thrown up a great people – great at least in the qualities of courage and devotion to unselfish ends. Think of those men and women, with centuries of oppression behind them, bred in bitter poverty and ignorance, deserted by most of their natural leaders, delivered over defenceless to their enemies by the democracies which should have aided them. Think of them as I saw them last April in Madrid and Valencia, men and women, young and old, without a trace of fear or dejection in their faces though bombs were crashing a few yards away and taking their daily toll of victims, going about their daily business in cheerful serenity, building up a system of social services that would have been a credit to any nation at war, submitting to unaccustomed discipline, composing their party differences, going to the front or sending their men to the front as though to a. fiesta, unstimulated – most of them – by hope of Heaven or fear of Hell, yet willing to leave the golden Spanish sunshine and all the lovely sights and sounds of spring and go into the blackness of death or the greater blackness of cruel captivity without a thought of surrender.

April 3

The CNT declares that the revolution must continue as this represent the greatest strength against fascism, in opposition to the recent declaration of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) , which had spoken out against social revolution and in favour of parliamentary democracy.

April 4

On 4 April 1937, at the beginning of the campaign against the Basque Country, Franco declared to Mussolini’s Ambassador, Roberto Cantalupo, that:

‘we must carry out the necessarily slow task of redemption and pacification, without which the military occupation will be largely useless. The moral redemption of the occupied zones will be long and difficult because in Spain the roots of anarchism are old and deep. Paul Preston

April 8

The PCE and the PSOE sign a pact to work together. This creates tensions within the POSE, and between the socialist UGT and the anarchist CNT trade unions.

Troops General Miaja under attack Nationalist positions in Garabitas and Casa de Campo.

April 11

The Republicans attack Nationalist positions in Santa Quitera.

April 14

6th anniversary of the Second Spanish Republic

April 19

Franco declares the UnificationDecree: the amalgamation of the fascist Falange, the conservative Catholic Carlists and other small right-wing parties, to create the incredibly mouthful of Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista (FET y de las JONS – “Spanish Traditionalist Phalanx of the Assemblies of National-Syndicalist Offensive”). With this Franco is not only the military leader of the rebellion, but also its political leader. It would also become known as the National Movement (Movimiento Nacional) or just El Movimiento.

April 23

Dissolution in Madrid of Junta de defensa (Defence Council); from now on the high command of the Republican army, under the ministry of war, resumes command of the frontlines of the city

April 26

Bombing of Guernica, the Condor Legion’s notorious terror bombing of the town most strongly identified with Basque national identity. Gernika was nearly destroyed by some three hours of bombing; civilian targets and the retreating Basque Army were hit, but military factories were specifically not targeted, it is supposed because the Nationalists intended to capture these intact. The attack took place on a market day, and so many more people were killed. When the Nationalists realize they have shocked the world, they put out the story that it was the retreating Basque Army that had destroyed the town.

It is unsure how many people were killed in the attack. The Basque government reported at the time 1,654 deaths, but modern speculations suggests between 200 to 400 civilians died. Russian archives revealed 800 deaths, but this number may not include victims who later died of their injuries in hospitals or whose bodies were discovered buried in the rubble.

And of course, the bombing was the subject of the famous painting by Picasso.

  • The BBC commemorated the 74th anniversary of the bombing of Guernica last week with a radio program. Listen to the podcast here.

George Steer, The Times (27th April, 1937)

Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers and Heinkel fighters, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000lb. downwards and, it is calculated, more than 3,000 two-pounder aluminum incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machine-gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields.

The whole of Guernica was soon in flames except the historic Casa de Juntas with its rich archives of the Basque race, where the ancient Basque Parliament used to sit. The famous oak of Guernica, the dried old stump of 600 years and the young new shoots of this century, was also untouched. Here the kings of Spain used to take the oath to respect the democratic rights (fueros) of Vizcaya and in return received a promise of allegiance as suzerains with the democratic title of Señor, not Rey Vizcaya. The noble parish church of Santa Maria was also undamaged except for the beautiful chapter house, which was struck by an incendiary bomb.

At 2 a.m. today when I visited the town the whole of it was a horrible sight, flaming from end to end. The reflection of the flames could be seen in the clouds of smoke above the mountains from 10 miles away. Throughout the night houses were falling until the streets became long heaps of red impenetrable debris. Many of the civilian survivors took the long trek from Guernica to Bilbao in antique solid-wheeled Basque farm carts drawn by oxen. Carts piled high with such household possessions as could be saved from the conflagration clogged the roads all night. Other survivors were evacuated in Government lorries, but many were forced to remain round the burning town lying on mattresses or looking for lost relatives and children, while units of the fire brigades and the Basque motorized police under the personal direction of the Minister of the Interior, Señor Monzon, and his wife continued rescue work till dawn.

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. Guernica was not a military objective. A factory producing war material lay outside the town and was untouched. So were two barracks some distance from the town. The town lay far behind the lines. The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race. Every fact bears out this appreciation, beginning with the day when the deed was done.

Monday was the customary market day in Guernica for the country round. At 4.30 p.m. when the market was full and peasants were still coming in, the church bell rang the alarm for approaching aeroplanes, and the population sought refuge in cellars and in the dugouts prepared following the bombing of the civilian population of Durango on March 31, which opened General Mola’s offensive in the north. The people are said to have shown a good spirit. A Catholic priest took charge and perfect order was maintained.

Five minutes later a single German bomber appeared, circled over the town at a low altitude, and then dropped six heavy bombs, apparently aiming for the station. The bombs with a shower of grenades fell on a former institute and on houses and streets surrounding it. The aeroplane then went away. In another five minutes came a second bomber, which threw the same number of bombs into the middle of the town. About a quarter of an hour later three Junkers arrived to continue the work of demolition, and thenceforward the bombing grew in intensity and was continuous, ceasing only with the approach of dusk at 7.45. The whole town of 7,000 inhabitants, plus 3,000 refugees, was slowly and systematically pounded to pieces. Over a radius of five miles round a detail of the raiders’ technique was to bomb separate caserios, or farmhouses. In the night these burned like little candles in the hills. All the villages around were bombed with the same intensity as the town itself, and at Mugica, a little group of houses at the head of the Guernica inlet, the population was machine-gunned for 15 minutes.

See also

Manchester Guardian (28th April 1937) Guernica, till 1876 capital of the Basque country, has been reduced to ruins by rebel planes of German make. The bombardment, which lasted for three and a half hours on Monday afternoon, killed hundreds of the 10,000 inhabitants, and yesterday only a few of the buildings remained standing. Many of the ruins were still burning.

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