Hitler’s Condor Legion Paved the Road to Guernica and Tested Terror Tactics on the City

Hitler’s Condor Legion Paved the Road to Guernica and Tested Terror Tactics on the City

Khalid Elhassan - November 13, 2018

In many ways, the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939), pitting fascist rebels against a democratically elected government, was a sneak preview, in proxy form, of World War II, which began a few months after the guns fell silent in Spain. The western democracies, led by Britain and France, declared neutrality and imposed an arms embargo that hamstrung the democratically elected Republican government and severely restricted its ability to defend itself. It did little to impede the fascists, who were generously supported by their natural allies, Mussolini and Hitler. Indeed, Hitler sent a German expeditionary force, the Condor Legion, which played a key role in securing victory for the Spanish fascists. In the meantime, the Republicans were forced to rely for arms on the Soviet Union, which charged them through the nose for the privilege, then abandoned them when Stalin sought to make nice with Hitler.

Many of the German weapons and tactics that would play a key role in WWII were first tested and fine tuned in the Spanish conflict. So were many of the horrors, such as the terror bombing of civilians, in a deliberate bid to break their morale and will to resist. Most notorious of those horrors was the Condor Legion’s bombing and destruction of a small Basque town in northern Spain, which inspired Pablo Picasso to paint what is perhaps his most famous painting, Guernica.

Hitler’s Condor Legion Paved the Road to Guernica and Tested Terror Tactics on the City
Hugo Sperrle, commander of the Condor Legion through October of 1937. Wikimedia

German Involvement in the Spanish Civil War

Spain’s generals rose up against their government in July of 1936, and soon thereafter, their leader, general Francisco Franco, sent emissaries to Hitler, requesting aid. They found him feeling bullish and brimming with confidence, as 1936 had been a good year for the Fuhrer, and the year still barely half over. That March, he had successfully stared down Britain and France, by sending German troops into the Rhineland, in blatant violation of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, without eliciting anything but feeble protests. A few months later, the Berlin Olympics had been a huge success, burnishing the image of the Third Reich and its leader.

Franco’s envoys were fortunate that the meeting took place at the annual Bayreuth Festival in honor of Hitler’s favorite composer, Wagner. The German leader was thus in a particularly good mood, and inclined to be generous when the Spanish emissaries requested help in transporting their veteran forces from Spanish Morocco to the Spanish mainland. Franco wanted 10 German transport aircraft, with air and ground crews. Hitler responded by sending him 20 Junkers Ju 52s.

Three million Reichsmarks were earmarked to fund an ostensibly private joint Spanish-German enterprise, the Spanish-Moroccan Transport Company, that was set up to provide cover and conceal German involvement. Over the next few months, German pilots operating German airplanes carried out an airlift codenamed Operation Magic Fire, to fly Franco’s soldiers to Spain. Ju 52s crammed with Spanish troops would transport about 13,500 veteran soldiers, plus 36 artillery pieces and 126 machine guns, in the world’s greatest airlift until then. It finally ended in October, when the fascists won control of the sea lanes between North Africa and Spain, enabling them to transport troops and equipment more economically in ships.

Hitler’s Condor Legion Paved the Road to Guernica and Tested Terror Tactics on the City
Spanish infantry being trained by the Condor Legion. Bundesarchiv Bild.

In the meantime, the Germans were busy recruiting and organizing volunteers to help Franco, and on August 1, 1936, a first contingent of 86 men, accompanied with six fighter aircraft, antiaircraft guns, and about 100 tons of supplies, was sent to Spain. It was the nucleus of what would become the Condor Legion. A month later, they were reinforced with 40 tanks, plus bombs for the steadily growing German air force in Spain: by October, Germany had dispatched about 120 airplanes to the conflict.

The German expeditionary force was initially intended as a training and supply mission, but its role soon evolved from training and supply to overt combat. After the Third Reich officially recognized Franco’s rebels, German efforts in Spain were expanded and reorganized, and their forces were formed into a new unit that was briefly called the Iron Rations, then the Iron Legion, before Hermann Goering renamed it the Condor Legion.

Hitler’s Condor Legion Paved the Road to Guernica and Tested Terror Tactics on the City
Ground crews preparing Condor Legion bombers. Historic Wings

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.

Hitler’s Condor Legion Paved the Road to Guernica and Tested Terror Tactics on the City
A Condor Legion Junkers Ju 52. Pintrest

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.

Hitler’s Condor Legion Paved the Road to Guernica and Tested Terror Tactics on the City
The wreckage of Guernica after the bombing. Bundesarchiv Bild


The following day, April 27th, news of Guernica’s destruction appeared in the international press, triggering widespread condemnations of the atrocity. Franco’s fascists labeled it fake news, and claimed that the town had been destroyed by its defenders as they withdrew, who then falsely pinned it on the heroic fascist air force. The Spanish Catholic Church, a mainstay of the Spanish fascist camp, backed Franco’s claims completely, and its professor of theology in Rome went so far as to claim that there was not a single German in Spain, because the local fascists needed only Spanish soldiers, who were second to none in the world.

It was too ludicrous even for Franco’s supporters abroad to sustain, especially after Condor Legion personnel acknowledged that they had bombed Guernica, claiming to have been aiming at a stone bridge just outside the town, only for strong winds to blow their bombs into Guernica. The bridge was never hit, there was virtually no wind, and anti-personnel bombs, incendiaries, and machine gun strafing are useless weapons against stone bridges. According to Richthofen’s diary, the attack had been planned with the Spanish fascists, with the aim of disrupting the Republican withdrawal through Guernica.

It is quite possible that one of the goals of bombing Guernica had been to block the roads leading through the town, but everything else points to the raid having been conducted as a live experiment on the effects of aerial terror bombing. A few years later, many European cities would share Guernica’s fate beneath German bombers, including Warsaw in 1939, Rotterdam and Coventry in 1940, Belgrade in 1941, and Stalingrad in 1942 – the last one a raid so devastating that it claimed the lives of more than 40,000 civilians in a single day.

Hitler’s Condor Legion Paved the Road to Guernica and Tested Terror Tactics on the City
Condor Levion victory parade in Berlin. Pintrest

Among those greatly moved by the fate of Guernica was Pablo Picasso. Feverishly working in his Paris apartment, the Spanish painter completed a mural sized oil painting on canvas in June of 1937, depicting the horrors that had taken place a few weeks earlier. Twenty five and a half feet wide by eleven and a half feet tall, Guernica, whose composition prominently features a gored bull, a horse, and people amidst the flames, captures the fear and agony of innocents caught up in the chaos and devastation of war.

The painting, which was exhibited at the 1937 Paris World Fair and other venues around the world, became an immediate sensation, and is perhaps Picasso’s most widely recognized work. It is considered by many art critics to be one of the most moving and powerful antiwar paintings in history. Unsurprisingly, the Germans were less than thrilled with the masterpiece. After France fell to the Germans in 1940, a Gestapo officer reportedly barged into Picasso’s apartment in Paris, and pointing at a photo of Guernica, asked: “Did you do that?!” The painter coolly replied: “No. You did“.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Beevor, Antony – The Battle For Spain: The Spanish Civil War, 1936-39 ­(2006)

Guardian, The, March 26th, 2009 – In Praise of… Guernica

History Net – Spanish Civil War: German Condor Legion’s Tactical Air Power

Independent, The, April 27th, 2017 – Eighty Years Later, The Nazi War Crime in Guernica Still Matters

ThoughtCo. – Spanish Civil War: Bombing of Guernica

Wikipedia – Condor Legion