This Week in Spanish Civil War History – November 1937: The Halfway Point

In a war which lasted almost three full years, November 1937 is the approximate halfway point in the destruction of Spain. Spain was already a deeply divided nation, struggling with multiple inside forces and serious social and economic issues, and while civil war is tragic, Spain had come to a point where it was inevitable. The working class was deeply oppressed and dire need for salvation, which could come from nowhere but within. Franco’s initial coup in July 1936 was thwarted only by the men and women who rose up in haste, without training or preparation, in a  desperate attempt to free themselves and save their country from fascism.

(Before we continue, this is a quick round-up of posts I have done throughout the war, not a detailed breakdown. Ease up on the posts saying I wasn’t specific enough. You have been warned. All links open a new tab so you don’t lose the timeline of the events).

The opening weeks of the war saw Spaniards forced to take sides, to align themselves with the military taking control of their cities and towns, often with the Guardia Civil on their side, or instead arm themselves as best they could and align themselves with the Spanish government, the Republican side, to try to hold off the rebels. Within weeks the battle lines were strong; much of southern Spain was conquered by a marching army of rebels, with massive bloodshed in cities and countryside alike. Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona were firmly Republican and fighting within themselves, while in the north, the Basques, Cantabrians, Asturians and Galicians fought to maintain their autonomy over the rebels. Slaughter occurred in Santander and Asturias as rebels initially overpowered these centres, only to be beaten back again. Much north of Madrid beneath these independent areas backed Franco and the killing continued. Click here to read Weeks 1 and 2:  July 1936

August saw thousands slaughtered in the summer heat. The battle of Badajoz saw up to 4000 killed in days. Cordoba suffered massive fighting and killing as troops stormed the southern city. The famous poet Federico García Lorca was taken and murdered outside Granada. While Madrid continued to defend itself, the nearby town of Talavera de la Reina suffered mass slaughter. Click here to read all of August 1936

September saw the huge attack on the Alcazar of Toledo, as well as the formation of the International Brigades, all foreign volunteers who decided to flood into Spain in an effort to stop fascism taking hold. Major nations such as England, France and the US decided to say out while Hitler and Mussolini decided to back their fascist mate Franco.

Through October and November the killings continued, the Spanish government collapsed, and the Catalonia and Aragon regions in the northeast began life as anarchist regions, creating their social revolution where control was handed back to the people. The siege of Madrid began as Franco fought to take the capital and end the war, and the Russians provided tanks and equipment to aid the socialist/anarchist/worker unions/communist Republicans. In the north, and Asturias took heavy losses as they were bombed from the air by German planes. After leaving Barcelona, Buenaventura Durruti was killed in Madrid, a huge set-back for the social revolution in the northwest. Also in Madrid,  Falange leader José Antonio Primo de Rivera is executed.

By the time the year ended, Madrid had been heavily bombed but not taken by the rebels, and the International Brigades had set up and integrated (as well as they could) into the Republican troops. The Republicans were not taking much ground but continuing to hold main centres in the east, along with Madrid. Click here to read all about December 1936

January and February held battles fought in heavy fog and rain, including much fighting outside Madrid, and Jarama, just northwest of the capital. Militias in Catalonia and Aragon held fast to their social revolution, while the Basques suffered heavy losses again as they held off the rebels. In Málaga in the south, the city was invaded when they could not defend themselves, sending thousands to flee along to the coast to relatively safe Almeria. Thousands were slaughtered as they walked the perilous road, where refugees were exposed, then bombed and shot as they fled. Click here to read about the Málaga/Almería massacre.

The bloody battles of Jarama and Guadalajara continued through March, and in April, 32,000 children started being shipped from the Basque country overseas in order to save their lives. The rebel army of the north is intensifying its efforts, with the now-infamous bombing of Durango and Guernica.

May saw the intense bombing of the new Republican capital city of Valencia, along with the fighting in the May Day fighting in Barcelona. June was an especially brutal month, with huge frontlines drawn up along the region of Aragon, battles in the Sierra de Guadarrama outside Madrid, Bilbao in the Basque Country was bombed and invaded, and in Barcelona, leader Andreu Nín was kidnapped and murdered in a Madrid prison.

Battles around Madrid, in Boadilla, Sierra de Guadarrama and Brunete saw huge fighting and casualties for both sides as the war reached its first anniversary. Legendary war photographer Gerda Taro was killed outside Brunete, and no nation except Russia comes to the Republicans’ aid as they are slaughtered by the fascists and their Moorish soldiers.

August 1937 focussed on the north. With the Basque region taken by the rebels, they turned east to take Santander in the Cantabria region. By September, the fascists again moved east again to take Gíjon in the Asturias region, with heavy mountainous battles taking place on cliffs that had kept Asturias safe from invaders for centuries. By October, Asturias was defeated by the northern army and could keep going west to claim Galicia, and Valencia is stripped of its title of capital of Spain in favour safer Barcelona. The Republican alliances of multiple militias fell apart, and many are fired from government and imprisoned, political alliances were ruined, and the dislike for the powerful communists pulled the left apart. The social revolution has suffered setbacks, including heavy battles and losses in the Aragon region, and there was breakdown of working class support in Barcelona.

By November 1937, the frontlines have moved little in some time, with the exception of the conquering of the northern regions. Madrid remains in Republican hands, along with the Valencia, Aragon, Catalonia and Almería region in the east. All regions have suffered serious losses, but little ground is gained in seriously bloody battles.The north is now under Franco’s control, along with all the south and the western Extremadura region. The strong left-wing cities of Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia are targets for the well-trained fascist brigades. The month of November saw little of major battles taking place, as both sides are exhausted from the fighting, and small breakouts of fighting yield little results for either side. The new target for the fascists is Teruel, a strong city in the Aragon region, which is about to see one of the war’s biggest fights go down in a particularly brutal winter.

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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.

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

26 April 1937 – Guernika-Luma, a Basque town of 7,000 people, entered the history books when it was attacked by the German Condor Legion (aided by the Fascist Italian Aviazione Legionaria) fighting on behalf of Franco’s Nationalist forces. The small town of Guernica, in the Biscay region of the Basque Country was a communication hub for the Basque fighters, who had sided with the Republican forces since the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Guernica, the spiritual home to the Basque people, became a target for a sustained and pre-panned terrorist bombing, where civilians, not military targets, would be bombed, to inflict devastation and murder. Operation Rügen would go down in history as a horrific slaughter of innocents which would shock the world, and single itself out as a vile test run for what Germany would inflict throughout Europe only a few years later.

Guernica is a town just inland from the Bay of Biscay, and just 30 kilometres from the Basque capital of Bilbao. The area had been under intense stress from the War of the North, carried out by the Nationalists in the months leading up to the bombing, hot on the heels of years of struggle for the Basque people. Guernica is the home of the Gernikako Arbola (Tree of Gernika), the symbol of freedom to the Biscayan and Basque people. Guernica was also home to a manufacturing plant which produced firearms to the police and military, which became a vital resource during the Spanish Civil War, when the Basque Army supported the Republicans’ cause over Franco’s Nationalist rebels.

By April 1937, the Basque Country was under constant bombardment by the Nationalist advance, coming at them on all fronts. The small Basque Army, set up by the independent Basque Government, sought to protect the Biscaya and Guipuzcoa regions. With the Basque capital of Bilbao only 30 kilometres west, Guernica was vital in protecting the capital, and also a point where Republicans could retreat to if needed. Throughout the war, Guernica had no seen direct front-line fighting, though 23 Basque battalions were now nearby to the east. The area had no airforce protection, no air base and only room to house two battalions if needed.

The attack on the Basque Country has been planned a month earlier by Franco, in conjunction with murderous General Mola, who lead the northern army, along with the German Condor Legion. The town of Durango suffered civilian bombing on March 31, part of a test run of killing innocents, and troops starting pouring into the region. Many people sought refuse in the town of Guernica, away from the fighting. But eventually, there was nowhere else to flee as the Republian and Basque fighters were slowly beaten back by the Nationalist forces. General Mola planned a devastating attack on Guernica, all done with Franco’s blessing. They planed for 21 German and three Italian bombers, carrying 22 tonnes of bombs, to be dropped on innocent people.

Monday was market day in the town of Guernica. While market days had been largely banned or discouraged in the region for safety, people still needed supplies. Monday 26 April was a typical Monday market day which could see up to 10,000 people in the town from surrounding areas, all in the main plaza. Coupled with around 1,000 refugees from the area, the town was full, the roads more congested than usual.

At 4.30pm, the first wave of bombers came from the north from over the Bay of Biscay, along the Urdaibai estuary which connects Guernica to the sea. The initial plan was to cut off bridges to block movements in the area with two 50 kg bombs, while the Italian bombers dropped another 36 50kg bombs on people. The first wave took only a minute, destroying bridges and the San Juan church and Republican Left headquarters, as the people of the town looked to take cover in panic. For the next 90 minutes, another four waves of attack would fly over the town, this time dropping bombs at random, killing innocent people, all cowering for cover in a town overfilled with people trying to buy and sell food. Guernica had no strategic assets to be captured, nor had seen any major wartime fighting, and was totally obliterated without warning or reasoning.

The people of Guernica were given 30 minutes of silence at around 6pm, thinking the bombing was complete. But by 6.30pm, the bombers were back in formation again, spread out over 150 metres, to drop the remainder of their arsenal. Then in came German biplanes, to bomb streets leading out of the town and machine-gun down people fleeing the carnage over a brutal 15 minute period. This cruel attack on civilians would have a larger impact than Franco could have anticipated.

This short space of time saw 75 percent of the town reduced to rubble. While the raid was considered a failure, as it was supposed to have been a military, not civilian attack, to bomb the area and cut off the Republican fighters from communications and reinforcements in Bilbao. As a result for the killings, within days, the Nationalists were able to swarm the area, not that they was much left to ‘conquer’. The firearm manufacturing plant was saved, as planned, along with the Gernikako Arbola (Tree of Gernika) and its government building. The town had become a testing ground for what would go on to be labelled carpet bombing, or blitz bombing, a popular tactic by German planes.

News quickly spread about the horrific acts at Guernica. First spreading through Europe and then the rest of the world, the Nationalists were branded as murders and barbarians (which should have been obvious already) as the blatant killing of innocents became apparent. Franco quickly had to have the propaganda dialled up, and denied the Nationalists’ own involvement, and claimed the Republicans destroyed the own town and killed their own people while in retreat from ground troops. Germany claimed no knowledge of the attack, claiming to have bombed a strategic bridge, the rest nothing to do with them. No such luck; journalists in the area were quick to file stories on the truth of Guernica.

But in the aftermath, the death toll was hard to quantify. The Basque government were unable to do much in way of assistance as Nationalists forced swarmed the area, and they made no attempt to calculate the dead and injured. Many left to die in the rubble were never accounted for, likewise the number of people who fled the region, never to return.

For decades the number of killed sat at 1,654, another 889 injured. A British journalist for The Times was in the area, and also came up with similar numbers. These incorrect figures became commonly adopted as accurate, though with the Nationalists not helping the wounded when then they invaded, and without proper funerals and records, there was no official death and injury toll. Even in the 1970’s the Nationalists were still denying everything and claimed only a dozen people were killed. Without further details coming to light over the years, historians now recognise the number of dead about approximately 300. A comprehensive study in the region in the 1980’s suggested 153, based on what records survived, with another 592 people who either died or recovered in Bilbao’s nearby hospital. While in context with many atrocities which occurred in Europe over intervening years make the numbers appear ‘small’, the casualty rate per bomb was much higher than many carpet bombings to come in the future, setting Guernica apart for yet another reason.

British journalist George Steer reported the story to the world, Guernica on the front pages in England for over a week as the horrors emerged. Cartoons emerged of the Basque ‘holy city’ being crushed by Hitler and his bloody swords in the US. The fact Guernica had no military targets quickly turned on the panic in many around the world, as people realised nothing was safe anymore. Guernica became a symbol of international horror and innocent suffering as deviant fascists sought to kill and destroy all in their way.

On the 60th anniversary of the bombing, Germany formally apologised for their role in the massacre, and in 2003, Guernica was commemorated alongside Dresden at the own commemorations, for suffering such a similar attack, but far less honoured and remembered. On Guernica’s 70th anniversary, officials in Hiroshima spoke of Guernica’s legacy in line with their own experiences. It has been suggested that Guernica be the world capital for peace.

For all the historical significance, the destruction and most importantly, the death toll, Guernica is probably best known internationally due to the Picasso painting of the same name. Picasso, living in exile in Paris, had been commissioned for war painting three months prior, and when he hard of Guernica, all of Picasso’s ideas were scraped for the depiction of those suffering. To Picasso, to bomb women and children was  to victimize humanity. The painting was complete by June 3. In black and white, the painting shows innocents dying, along with the Spanish symbols of the horse and bull, as Spain is ruined, along with tiny symbols of hope trying to shine through while destruction comes from all angles. When German soldiers came into Picasso’s Paris apartment years later during WWII, and was asked if he did the work, he told the Nazi’s – ‘no, you did’. Guernica traveled the world but was not able to return to Spain until 1981 when freedom was achieved for the Spanish people. It now sits in the Reina Sofia gallery in Madrid (if you haven’t been, you should).

After the bombing of Guernica, the town was in flames, seen 10 miles (16 kilometres) away, according to George Steer, as buildings continued to crumble and crush the injured and trapped. Yet, pilots who belonged to the Condor Legion, whom Franco let practice on his own people, received a mausoleum in La Almudena in Madrid. Many vicious men from the war were revered in Spain, these plaques and statues and memorials removed over the years. To mark the 80th anniversary of Guernica, the mausoleum in La Almudena for fallen Condor Legion pilots was quietly removed, to be replaced with simple names. No more “Here rest the German pilots who fell in the struggle for a free Spain. German aviators who died for God and for Spain”. The plaque had been removed in the past but had been quietly replaced by those who still love Franco and all that happened in his name.  It has taken 80 years for this last sign of pro-German acts to be removed. The wounds on Guernica will never fully heal.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the 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.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 40 and 41: 17 – 30 April 1937

April 19

Franco creates the Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista (FET y de las JONS). This brings together the horrid Falange fascists and the hard-right Catholic Carlists into one big hate group. Franco appoints himself as leader, making him both a political and military leader, paving the way for dictatorship. The Falange has many of leaders killed during the war, more than any other group, and needs leadership. These groups together can go on to control all other parties and unions. Franco, with no real alliance to any group, told all what they wanted to hear, bending to suit to take over all parties he worked with, in order to slowly assume total control. This party can dominate enough to make Spain pro-Catholic, pro-monarchy, pro-fascism, pro-conservatism, pro-ultranationalism by combining their people. It allows the small fascist Falange group to swell to a peak of 900,000 (when combined together) and the women’s unit (needed because these groups were anti-women), Sección Femenina, grows to 500,000 during the war.

April 20

The Nationalist ‘government’ in Burgos has been battling the Basque ports now for two weeks. They launch a huge bombardment of Basque port towns to stop all flow of cargo entering to help the Republican cause, as British ships have defied blockades. The Nationalist 1st Navarrese bridge battle Basque troops at Elgeta, just 20 kilometres east of the newly destroyed town of Durango (see week 37).

Basque fighters must retreat to the Iron Ring, a series of tunnels built around Bilbao, which are simple and under-defended, but have no other option, as the German Condor Legion are bombing towns and forest areas through the region.

pro-Republic Basque fighters in Elgeta, Gipuzkoa, Basque Country

April 23

The Junta de defensa, Madrid defense council, is dissolved, in an effort to reshape the protection of the city. They have been active since the outbreak of war, but now have to change tactics. The Ministry of War, who control the command of the Republican army takes over the defense of Madrid, as fighting in the city has stabilised and the frontlines are outside Madrid itself.

April 26

The German Condor Legion launch their major terrorist offensive on the small Basque town of Guernica. After experimenting on several towns in previous weeks, the Condor Legion strike the unarmed Basques with airstrikes on civilians. The town of Guernica is bombed for three hours, and no military targets are identified; the bombing is purely to kill innocents. The Basque army in the area are forced to instantly retreat and bombed upon fleeing. They attack on a Monday, market day in Guernica, to maximise the civilian death toll. Military factories are spared, along with Gernikako Arbola, the Guernica Tree, symbolising freedom outside the old government building and the Casa de Juntas, the new location (and tree). These are spared as the Nationalist want the locations for themselves once they invade. The bombing shocks the world, and Nationalists have to hide and lie about what really happened at Guernica.

A separate post about Guernica will be posted.

April 30

Nationalist-supporting Italian troops take the port town of Bermeo, but the España, a 132 metre Nationalist battleship hits one of its own mines and sinks off the coast of Santander 150 kilometres away, and never reaches the port. The España was aiding fellow destroyer Velasco in stopping a British ship of getting into port when it hit its own mine. Five seaman die as Republican planes bomb the sinking ship, but all other men were rescued by the Velasco.

As Nationalist troops close in on Bilbao, the Basque government makes a plea, asking that 20,000 children be shipped out of Spain in temporary exile. The first ship leaves a month later, 4,000 Basque refugee children to Britain, while others are sent to France, Belgium, the Soviet Union and Mexico. Many never return home.

Basque children in the French Pyrenees. Children in western countries have to suffer the Second World War during their return home. Children in Communist countries could not return for nearly 20 years

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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.

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.