The Condor Legion and the Bombing of Guernica
The Condor Legion, particularly its air arm, would play an oversized role in securing victory for Spain’s fascists. The Spanish Civil War became a proving ground for German weapons and tactics, and the Republican forces became de facto guinea pigs, upon whom the Germans experimented and worked out how to best coordinate their air, armor, and infantry forces. The result would be the devastating blitzkrieg, which would overrun much of Europe in the opening years of WWII.
The Legion’s most notorious action occurred in April of 1937, in the Basque region of northern Spain. Fighting, which began there on April 20th, was going badly for the Basque defenders. Between the aerial superiority of the Condor Legion, and the incompetent and undisciplined Republican side, their front was on the verge of collapse. They were saved by the hesitancy of the fascist Spanish commanders, who failed to seize the moment and finish off their reeling foes. Seeing the Spaniards let slip the opportunity created by the hard work and risks run by German airmen greatly annoyed Wolfram von Richthofen, the Condor Legion’s combat commander at the time. A few days later, his frustration would get taken out on the Basque town of Guernica.
On April 25th, demoralized Republican troops fell back on Guernica, which lay about six miles behind the front. About 4:30 on the afternoon of the following day, Monday the 26th, church bells rang in Guernica to warn of an air attack. It was a market day, and many farmers had come into the town with their sheep and cattle. The town’s citizens, plus visitors and refugees who had flooded into Guernica to escape the advancing armies, rushed into cellars which had been designated as air raid shelters.
A single Heinkel He 111 of the Condor Legion arrived over the town, bombed its center, and disappeared. People emerged from the shelters, many going to clear the rubble and help the injured. 15 minutes later, more German bombers struck, dropping bombs of varying sizes. People rushing back into the shelters were choked by dust and smoke, and grew alarmed when it became clear that the cellars were not strong enough to protect them from the heavier bombs. A stampede began to the open fields surrounding the town, when Heinkel 51 fighters swept over, strafing and bombing the fleeing men, women, and children, as well as the livestock. The major part of the bombing had not even begun.
At 5:15PM, Junkers Ju 52s, converted into bombers, arrived, and subjected the town to carpet bombing – a tactic invented by the Condor Legion – in systematic 20 minute relays, for two and a half hours. Their loads ranged from small anti-personnel 20 pound bombs, to 250 kilogram heavier bombs, plus incendiaries in 2 pound aluminum tubes that were sprinkled down like confetti. Witnesses described apocalyptic scenes: whole families buried in the ruins of their houses; blackened humans staggering about or scrabbling through the rubble, desperate to dig out friends and relatives; sheep and cattle, set ablaze by white phosphorous, running crazily between the burning buildings until they died. According to local authorities, about a third of Guernica’s population became casualties, with 1654 killed, and 889 wounded. That night, flames from the burning town were visible from miles away.