By Esme Choonara
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The attack on Guernica revealed the horror of aerial warfare

This article is over 15 years, 3 months old
In April 1937, Pablo Picasso read an article in the French Communist daily, L’Humanité, reporting that "Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders.
Issue 2048
Guernica after the bombing
Guernica after the bombing

In April 1937, Pablo Picasso read an article in the French Communist daily, L’Humanité, reporting that “Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders.

“The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three and a quarter hours, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000 lbs…

“The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machine-gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields.”

This was the account Times journalist George Steer had written of the fascist bombing of the town.

The bombing – carried out with the aid of German and Italian fascist forces – was part of Spanish fascist general Francisco Franco’s campaign to crush all forces of the left and of resistance to his seizure of power.

It prompted Picasso to paint Guernica.

Steer, who was in the Basque country at the time, was horrified not just at the level of carnage in Guernica, but at the use of aerial bombardment to target civilians on a massive scale. He wrote, “The raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history.

“Guernica was not a military objective. A factory producing war material lay outside the town and was untouched. The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralisation of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race.”

While Guernica brought the horror of aerial warfare to world’s attention, it was not unique in military history. The same techniques had already been used by several European powers to suppress resistance in the colonies.

The first aerial bombing was carried out in October 1911 by the Italian air force, which bombed Tripoli in north Africa to crush an Arab revolt. Aerial bombing was used from the first to spread terror among civilian populations.

An official communiqué from the Italians remarked that the bombs “had a wonderful effect on the morale of the Arabs”.

By the time of the bombing of Guernica, the British had already used aerial bombardment against uprisings in Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt, as well as against the Sultan of Darfur.


In the summer of 1920, more than 100,000 Iraqis rose up against the British occupiers. The RAF responded by dropping 97 tons of bombs, killing almost 9,000 Iraqis. Only nine British soldiers were killed in the uprising.

This massacre was carried out under the command of Arthur “Bomber” Harris.

Harris wrote, “The Arab and Kurd surely now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage; they now know that within 45 minutes a full sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target and no effective means of escape.”

The major powers turned these tactics on each other during the Second World War.

Britain led the way. Refusing to save the lives of thousands by bombing the gas chambers in the Nazi concentration camps, Harris instead led the firebombing of civilian areas of Germany to “demoralise” the population.

This included the slaughter of over 30,000 people – many of them refugees – in the firebombing of Dresden. The British state continues to honour Harris – a statue of him stands in central London.

Despite repeated international declarations outlawing the targeting of civilians, the major powers continue to use mass terror and aerial slaughter to impose their will.

As technology has developed, so have the deadly means of aerial warfare – with the development of napalm, the atom bomb, depleted uranium and cluster bombs.

On 6 August 1945 – two days before signing up to the Nuremberg Charter, which lists among war crimes the “wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages” – the US dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima in Japan.

This killed 100,000 people immediately and another 100,000 through a slow painful death over the following year.

Between 1964 and 1971, the US dropped 373,000 tons of napalm on Vietnam. Napalm is a chemical designed to burn and strip people’s skin away.

The US also dropped almost 500,000 cluster bombs – small canisters containing many smaller bombs. Cluster bombs have been widely used by British and US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The effect is like planting thousands of mines in civilian areas.


Some things haven’t changed since Guernica – the attempt to blame “terrorists” for any slaughter for one. After the news of the destruction of the city spread, Franco denied the massacre. The head of his press bureau said that Basque saboteurs had dynamited the city.

Another tactic still used today is the dropping of propaganda leaflets to create fear and panic among the local population. Israel did this during its attack on Lebanon last summer.

Just before destroying Guernica, Franco’s army dropped leaflets on the main towns in the Basque country warning, “If submission is not immediate, I will raze Vizcaya [a Basque town] to the ground, beginning with the industries of war. I have the means to do so.”

Today the name of Fallujah has become a modern equivalent of Guernica – a symbol etched in the minds of millions of the barbarism of war. The US, assisted by the British army, systematically destroyed the Iraqi town in November 2004 with a campaign of terror, siege, aerial bombardment and ground troops.

George Bush and Tony Blair talk of the need for a “long war” against the terrorist threat.

On the anniversary of the destruction of Guernica, we should remember that the US and Britain, like other imperialist powers, are built on a long history of deliberate mass terror against civilians.

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