Spanish Civil War: Bombing of Guernica

Ruin of Guernica. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25224

Conflict & Dates:

The Bombing of Guernica occurred on April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).


Condor Legion

  • Oberstleutnant Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen

The Bombing of Guernica Overview:

In April 1937, Oberstleutnant Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, commander of the Condor Legion, received orders to conduct raids in support of the Nationalist advance on Bilbao. Comprised of Luftwaffe personnel and aircraft, the Condor Legion had become a proving ground for German pilots and tactics. To back Nationalist efforts, the Condor Legion began planning a strike on a key bridge and railroad station in the Basque town of Guernica. The destruction of both would prevent the arrival of Republican reinforcements and make difficult any retreat by their forces.

Though Guernica possessed a population of around 5,000, the raid was scheduled for a Monday which was market day in the town (there is some dispute whether a market was taking place on April 26) increasing its population. To complete his objectives, Richthofen detailed a force of Heinkel He 111s, Dornier Do.17s, and Ju 52 Behelfsbombers to the strike. They were to be aided by three Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 bombers from the Aviazione Legionaria, an Italian version of the Condor Legion.

Scheduled for April 26, 1937, the raid, dubbed Operation Rügen, began around 4:30 PM when a single Do.17 flew over the town and dropped its payload, forcing the inhabitants to scatter. It was closely followed by the Italian SM.79s which had strict orders to focus on the bridge and avoid the town for "political purposes." Dropping thirty-six 50 kg bombs, the Italians departed with little damage having been inflicted on the town proper. What damage had occurred was most likely inflicted by the German Dornier. Three more small attacks occurred between 4:45 and 6:00 PM, and focused largely on the town.

Having flown a mission earlier in the day, the Ju 52s of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Squadrons of the Condor Legion were the last to arrive over Guernica. Escorted by German Messerschmitt Bf109s and Italian Fiat fighters, the Ju 52s reached the town around 6:30 PM. Flying in three-plane wedges, the Ju 52s dropped a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs on Guernica for approximately fifteen minutes, while the escorting fighters strafed ground targets in and around the town. Departing the area, the bombers returned to base as the town burned.


Though those on the ground valiantly attempted to fight the fires caused by the bombing, their efforts were hampered by damage to water pipes and hydrants. By the time the fires were put out, approximately three-quarters of the town had been destroyed. Casualties among the population were reported between 300 and 1,654 killed depending on the source.

Though directed to strike the bridge and station, the payload mix and the fact that bridges and military/industrial targets were spared indicates that Condor Legion intended to destroy the town from the outset. While no single reason has been identified, various theories such as revenge for the hanging of a German pilot to the Nationalists seeking a swift, decisive victory in the north have been presented. As the raid prompted international outrage, the Nationalists initially attempted to claim that the town had been dynamited by retreating Republican forces.

A symbol of the suffering caused by the conflict, the attack prompted famed artist Pablo Picasso to paint a large canvas entitled Guernica which depicts the attack and destruction in abstract form. At the artist's request, the painting was kept out of Spain until the country returned to a republican government. With the end of General Francisco Franco's regime and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, the painting was finally brought to Madrid in 1981.

Selected Sources

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Spanish Civil War: Bombing of Guernica." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). Spanish Civil War: Bombing of Guernica. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Spanish Civil War: Bombing of Guernica." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).