This Week in Spanish Civil War History Extra: 80 Years Since the Bombing of Durango

The Nationalists had tried everything to get into Madrid. Both the city and surroundings areas in all directions had already been bombarded by March 1937, eight months since the start of the SCW. Franco decided to turn his attention away from the broken yet defiant capital, and launched a new War on the North. General Emilio Mola y Vidal, who was named the leader of the north during the war while Franco commanded the south, decided to wipe out the Basque country. He already had launched offensives throughout the Basque region while basing himself in Burgos (160 kilometres south of the Basque city of Bilbao). Mola decided to deploy 50,000 troops and multiple German planes, but this time had a new plan – to launch ‘terror attacks’, where he would have his men attack civilians instead of military targets. This time, innocents were to be targeted, to inspire fear, to make the Republican held areas cower to the will of the Nationalists, or be hunted down and murdered.

The town of Durango was marked as the test target. Just 30 kilometres south of Bilbao, Durango was a small village, typical of the region and Spain as a whole. With 10,000 people, it was a rail stop between Bilbao and the front lines of the war. While it had no military operations, it was in Republican territory and ripe for attack. Mola wanted to burn the entire province of Vizcaya to the ground for being in Republican territory.

At 8.30am, inhabitants were at Mass at the Santa Maria basilica in the centre of town, and in the basilica arcade, where the local market was held. Five bombers, German Ju-52’s flown by the Condor Legion and Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.8’s flown by the  Aviazione Legionaria, set out and used the basilica as the focal point. A direct hit was scored from the very beginning; the priest and 26 worshippers were bombed to pieces. The nearby cloister was also destroyed, killed all 14 nuns inside. The market was also hit directly, killing all those looking for food, others killed by falling buildings and horrific injuries from which they could not recover. A total of 281 bombs were dropped on Durango, almost 15,000kg of explosives. Just over 200 buildings were destroyed, though some have been rebuilt and their shrapnel wounds are still visible today.

The initial bombing sent the people first into panic, followed by a desperate attempt to rescue those under rubble once the bombers disappeared again. Word spread outside the village; Bilbao received news of the bombings, and send ambulances, doctors and police to help the stricken people of Durango. The tiny village of Ellorrio, ten kilometres from Durango, with no military targets at all, and just a few thousand civilians, was also bombed, like a cruel parting shot at the region.

As help from Bilbao tried to get to Durango and people rushed around their village to save as many as they could, the worst was not over. By 5.30pm that same afternoon, the planes returned, this time accompanied by eight Heinkel He-51 fighter bombers, equipped with machine guns. Bombs were dropped to stop those from Bilbao getting to Durango, and the people of the town were machine-gunned down as they tried to help the injured and those trapped in rubble. By the end of the day 250 were dead, with another 100 to die of their injuries, and 200 homes reduced to rubble.

Killings and executions were common by now in Spain; Durango itself had previously carried out executions on Nationalist sympathisers for earlier bombings of Republicans in their small town. Between this ugliness and the front line deaths, Spain was growing used to fear. But now Mola had ushered in a whole new era. Durango became the first place in Europe to be targeted to kill civilians and not military targets. A whole new world of death was born that day in Durango.

Nationalists denied their role entirely. Mola, and Franco henchman General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano said that the Republicans attacked and killed the priest, nuns and the churches of the village, as had happened in other places. They claimed their planes were looking for military targets and it was Cocialists and Communists who came out and used the opportunity to murder innocents.

By April 28, Nationalists soldier had entered Durango and taken over the area. By then, Mola and his killers had stepped up their missions and bombed Guernica (which needs a long post on its own on its commemoration date).

Where the bombs hit in the centre of the Durango old town is now a site for historical memory, and commemorated every 31 March.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos are screencaps of the video and linked to source for credit.

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This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 35/36/37: 12 March – 2 April 1937

March 12

The Republicans are finally in a position to launch an offensive. A midday offensive sees 100 Soviet Rata and Chato fighter planes launched along with two squadrons of larger Katiuska bombers, which have arrived from Albacete. The Italian Nationalists have had their planes grounded due to the fog and sleet water-logging their aircraft. Albacete is 260 kilometres south and has not suffered weather troubles.

As the planes bomb the Nationalists, the Republican divisions are able to attack on the ground with light tanks. Nationalist tankettes get jammed in the mud and are destroyed, easy targets. The Republicans fight back all through the day and forced the Nationalists back to Trijueque, seven kilometres north of Torija. The Nationalists will never regain this ground, and most of the Nationalist XI Gruppo de Banderas are killed, including their commander.

Franco had promised to start a western offensive from Jarama, launching Spanish Nationalists to support the Italians, but this offensive has not appeared. This is allowing the Republicans to have a little breathing space as they fight. The stalemate and killing at Jarama is one possible reason for the lack of support, but another is Franco’s lack of enthusiasm. It is critical in how to battle will play out. Propaganda is also beginning, with the Spanish not pleased that the Italians are launching attacks in Spain, and the Republicans, calling the International Brigades all Jews and Communists (that’s a quote from Germans in Spain, not my opinion), could beat Italians. There is still another 11 days of this battle to play out, but both military and propaganda moves are being created and setting precedents, and numbers are swelling, with the Nationalists about to swell to 50,000 men and the Republicans at 20,000.

March 13

The fog and rain which has plagued both sides abates, allowing the Italian Penne Nere division to retreat from Trijueque. The Republicans attack the towns of Trijueque and Casa del Cabo, one of the first ground successes in the battle. Lister’s 11th column ride tanks along the Zaragoza road while the 14th column under Mera manage to cross the Tajuña River and attack the town of Brihuega. The local CNT militia help Mera to cross the river with a pontoon bridge, which sends the Italians into retreat.

March 14

The Republicans are able to rest after their initial success and their airstrikes continue against the Italians. They are now 20,000 strong, protected by 70 planes and 60 tanks. The Nationalists are reinforced to a huge group of 45,000 men, 50 planes and 80 tanks. Yet, despite this imbalance, the battle is stable and mostly even through the Guadalajara region.

The Republicans capture the strategic and famous Palacio de Ibarra from the Italians at Brihuega. The XI International Brigade and the Garibaldi Battalion take it, and it becomes a symbol of propaganda. Ernest Hemingway writes of the fight and how they took control of the access road through Brihuega and the Guadalajara region. The battle again sees Italians fighting Italians in the Spanish Civil War.

Palacio de Ibarra after the battle

March 16

Fighting continues in the Brihuega region for days and the Republicans slowly make process in pushing back the Nationalist front. The tide has finally turned in the Republicans’ favour. Franco does not deploy any more troops to the campaign and many are upset the Italians are fighting their own pursuits in a Spanish war.

March 18

The weather has again been hampering efforts on both sides. The Republican 14th column still have control of their pontoon bridge on the Tajuña River. Sleet abates about midday and the Republicans are able to get their planes in the air. Through early afternoon Lister and the 14th column fight back the Italians and the Republicans have Brihuega surrounded. The strong Italian Littorio division fighting for the Nationalists are forced to retreat and the XI International Brigade beat back the last of the Nationalists and Italians from the region. While the Italians have a tactical retreat and many are saved from death, they have been roundly defeated. There are so many Nationalists in the area it takes until the following morning to either kill or capture them, or they manage to escape the slew of Republican tanks coming at them.

 Cars bombed from the air on the Zaragoza road

March 19

The Guadalajara battle is over. The Republicans have taken huge amounts of the Nationalist artillery and equipment, along with critical documents about the Italian plans in Spain once the Nationalist bases are raided. Around 650 Italians are dead, 500 captured and another 2,000 injured. Thanks to the writings of Ernest Hemingway in the area, the US media sway in the Republicans direction, and Hemingway raises $40,000US to buy ambulances for the Republicans. The US opinion has turned in the Republicans’ favour, but due to communist input in Spain, the US will not openly support the Republicans.

The Spanish government have the documents detailing the Italian involvement in the war, all details of Italy’s violation of the Non-Intervention Committee. Spain submits the papers in London, but the useless Committee refuse the papers and Spain seeks to present them before the League of Nations in Geneva. The constant attacks by Germany and Italy are having a devastating impact as they seek to spread fascism.

March 23

The Republicans at Guadalajara now have Gajenejos and Villaciviosa de Tajuña. All remaining Nationalist men are on the front lines between Ledanca and Hontanares, but the Republicans have enough of a hold on Guadalajara that these men are trapped and must leave the region for safety. These front lines will not move again.

March 31

The War of the North begins

The cruel General Mola decides to launch another offensive in northern Spain with a whopping 50,000 soldiers. Because the Nationalists cannot gain Madrid, instead they seek to take hold of the Basque Country. A new tactic is employed; the Condor Legion launch terror attacks on non-military targets, set to wipe out complete northern villages. Durango (30 kilometres southeast of Bilbao) is the first village targeted as bombs are dropped from German Ju-52 and Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 planes on churches during morning Mass. As people flee the bombing, Heinkel He 51 machine-gunners fly low and fire on the public. Around 300 people are killed, and another 2,500 are injured, all civilians. Nationalists attack a cloister, killing all 14 nuns. The nearby city of Bilbao sends men, police protection and ambulances to help the town, but another air strike blocks their aid.

tiny Durango being bombed by the German planes

Durango is the first place in Europe to be bombed in such a manner, a test run for what shall lay ahead in Spain and then WWII. The tiny village of Elorrio ten kilometres southeast is also bombed the same day, also for no reason whatsoever. The Nationalists deny all claims of killing civilians, blaming Republican uprisings for the church attacks. The war has taken a new turn, using civilian Spaniards as target practice.

The Nationalist wish to wipe out the north, and it is now only twenty days away from the infamous bombing of Guernica.

A more detailed article on the bombing of Durango will be posted in a special This Week in Spanish Civil War History: Extra

April 1

Six German JU-52 bombers attack the city of Jaen, desite the fact they have no military targets. Approximately 159 people are killed and hundreds more injured, another practice raid ahead of Guernica.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.