War in the North Part 2

The fighting in the north started up again on 20th April, and things were going badly for the Basques. The combination of air power and the fighting abilities of the Carlist troops brought the front close to collapse. Chaos was increased by the incompetence of the Republican general staff. During the week the Basques fell back towards Guernica in disarray.

On Monday 26th April, 1937, the main church bell in Guernica rang to warn of an air attack. It was market day, and many farmers were in the town with their cattle. The refugees from the advancing Nationalists together with the towns population went down into the cellars which were designated 'refugios'. A single He-111 bomber of the Condor Legion's experimental squadron arrived over the town, dropped its load on the centre, and then disappeared. Most people came out of the shelters, many going to help the injured. Then, 15 minutes later the entire squadron came over, dropping various sizes of bombs. People rushed back into the cellars again, but became alarmed when it was made evident that the shelters were not strong enough to withstand the heavier bombs. A stampede into the fields began, and then He-51 fighters strafed and grenaded men, women and children. And the main attack had not even started yet.

At 5.15 the heavy sound of aero engines was heard - Ju-52s. Three squadrons from Burgos systematically carpet bombed the town in 20 minute relays for three and a half hours. Their loads were made up of small and medium sized bombs, as well as incendiaries. Eyewitnesses described the resulting scenes in terms of hell or the apocalypse. whole families were buried in the ruins of their houses or crushed in the refugios, cattle and sheep, blazing with phosphorous, ran crazily through the burning buildings until they died. Blackened humans staggered blindly through the smoke and dust, while others scrabbled in the rubble, hoping to dig out friends and relatives. A third of the towns popualtion were casualties - 1654 killed and 889 wounded. The parliament buildings were untouched as they had been just outside the pilots flight path, but the rest of Guernica was a burnt skeleton.

As with Durango, the Nationalists set out to reverse the story. Condor Legion veterans would later claim they were trying to bomb the bridge just outside Guernica, but that strong winds blew them over the town. The bridge was never hit, there was virtually no wind, the Junkers were flying abreast and not in line, and antipersonnel bombs and incendiaries are not effective against stone bridges. One intention of the raid may have been to block the roads, as at Durango, but everything else points to a major experiment in aerial terrorism.

The communist Rosa Luxembourg battalion held Guernica against the Nationalists for a time despite the extraordinary incompetence of their commander, who appears to have been incapable of reading a map. Then on 1st May a UGT battalion ambushed the Italians, putting 4000 men of the Black Arrows and their Fiat Ansaldo tankettes to flight. But for the Army of the North, it was time to retreat to the "Iron Ring" around Bilbao, the Basque's last line of defence.

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