Photo courtesy of Arxiu fotogràfic del Centre d'Història Contemporània de Catalunya
Seventy-five years ago, on the evening of February 13th, 1937, an Italian cruiser off the coast of Barcelona fired shells at an arms factory on Passeig Sant Joan. They missed their target and 18 people were killed. A month later came the first raid from the skies when Mussolini’s planes hit Poble Sec. Six people died and 39 were injured. From that day, the city would be hit almost 200 times until its fall on January 26th, 1939. Some 2,500 to 3,000 Barcelona residents were killed and thousands more were injured. It was the beginning of the 20th century’s murderous affair with the mass bombardment of civilians. Although Madrid had already been shelled as a military target on the front line, and Baghdad, Kabul and other places had been bombed by the colonial powers before, this was the first time a city had been targeted systematically over a sustained period.
The planes, often Savoias, flew in from the Aviazione Legionaria’s base on Mallorca. There was no radar and no land from which to telephone to warn of their approach. So residents didn’t know the planes were coming until they were actually heard or seen above the city. Attempts were made to improve warnings. The city council built contraptions that tried to pick up the sound of planes with little success. People took in stray dogs and cockerels to warn them of the approaching danger, for both have acute hearing.
As a result of the delayed warning, citizens had between one and a half and three minutes to get to an aid raid shelter. Despite this, the numbers of deaths was comparatively low—consider that some 3,000 died in the worst night of the London Blitz alone. Of course the bombing was less intensive in Barcelona, but it was also a result of the excellent network of around 1,400 air raid shelters that locals set out about building once the first bombs fell. Residents’ associations and trade unions took to the task without waiting for the authorities to give the go-ahead. As many of the men were by that point at the front, much of the work was done by women and children. As the war continued, the city council set about building larger, more secure shelters and improving the self-built ones, but without the collective effort of a large number of locals, this task would have been impossible.
At the end of the war, the British brought the chief engineer of Barcelona’s civil defence programme, Ramon Perera, to London. He advised them to do the same as the Catalans had done: dig deep and to get the whole population involved in the work. Churchill decided against this approach, arguing that making such public shelters would make people “cowardly and lazy”, and claiming that the British working class lacked the solidarity to engage in the digging. Instead the people were given the Anderson shelter, often a death trap. Confidential reports later expressed regret that the Perera model had not been adopted and estimated thousands had died needlessly in the Blitz.
The Italians experimented with different methods of inflicting damage on Barcelona, combining explosive, high-explosive and penetrating explosive bombs, followed by incendiaries. Anti-personnel bombs were also used. British nurse Anne Murray passed through the city with the retreating Republican army a few weeks before it fell. She saw the horrors of war: “We found a whole lot of children, dozens of them, with their hands off, completely off. The Italians had dropped anti-personnel bombs marked ‘Chocolatti’. The children were picking up these things—they hadn’t had chocolate for years—and they just blew their hands off. This Spanish surgeon that I worked with, he was in tears. We all were.”
The worst raids took place between March 16th and 18th, 1938, when nearly a thousand people died, as raid after raid struck the city. The weather was cold and rainy, and many people fled, seeking refuge in Collserola. Soon the centre was almost deserted, the streets deep in broken glass. The worst occurred on the 17th. A lorry carrying high explosives, which happened to be passing the Coliseum cinema on Gran Via, was hit. The blast destroyed almost an entire side of an Eixample block. Six hundred people were killed. At the time, many thought the Italians had dropped some evil new weapon.
Although most of the raids were committed by the Italian air force, towards the end of the war, Barcelona was also attacked by the German Condor Legion, including 40 attacks between January 21st and 25th,1939, principally a series of deadly raids by Stukas on Barceloneta. Like the Aviazione Legionaria, they saw the city as a testing ground, the results from which they would later put into widespread use with deadly effect.
Many of the victims were treated by Profesor Josep Trueta, head of trauma services for the city, who also later worked for the British. During the war, he developed the use of a new plaster cast method for the treatment of open wounds and fractures. It would save hundreds of lives in Barcelona and many, many thousands during the Second World War.
The industrial, port and working class areas were the most hit, particularly Barceloneta, Ciutat Vella, Poble Sec and Poblenou. After the war, Franco left much of the bottom half of the Raval in ruins until the early Sixties as a punishment and warning to the local population of what happened if they supported ‘the Reds’. The Eixample was also hit, though more prosperous areas tended to be spared, and some prime targets were conspicuously left alone. Italian records show that on some occasions French and Belgian companies bribed the Italians not to bomb their factories, including those making arms. The huge Maquinista complex was also left untouched, presumably under instructions from the Nationalist-friendly owners with an eye on post-war profits. War is also business.
Bombing of Barcelona route
Unlike other vestiges of the Civil War in Barcelona, the bombing of the city is relatively well commemorated and there are a number of sites you can visit, including:
- Refugi 307. Highly recommended is a guided visit to this restored air raid shelter hollowed out on the side of Montjuïc. In addition to giving an in-depth view of the bombing of the city, it also functions as a centre for historical memory for Poble Sec. After decades abandoned, the shelter was rediscovered and saved thanks to the work of the late Valerie Powles, Poble Sec devotee and dedicated historian. Book for Saturday or Sunday visits only through the Museu de la Ciutat.
- Plaça del Diamant. Another impressive air raid shelter, which takes you deep under the surface of Gràcia.
- Turó de la Rovira. Site of the main air defences, built in 1937 in an attempt to protect the city from air raids, though they enjoyed little success. The ruins are now protected and panels explain the military history of the hill, along with a remembrance of the shanty-town dwellers who later lived here. Even if you’re not interested in the history, the views are splendid. Bus 24.
- Plaça Sant Felip Neri is perhaps the most delightful square in Barcelona, but its peaceful, secret atmosphere belies its tragic history. When I arrived in Barcelona 20 years ago, I was told that the pitted marks in the stone were from the bullets of Anarchist execution squads, who had shot priests against the wall here. It is a story one still hears regularly today, but it was a lie put out by the Francoist authorities in an attempt to cover up the death of 42 people here when a bomb fell on the church on January 30th, 1938. It had been turned into a makeshift orphanage and most of the victims were refugee children from Madrid. As the rescue workers pulled out the survivors from the building another bomb fell in the square, killing more. It was the second worst bombing atrocity during the war, the first being the aforementioned Coliseum bomb, a monument to which stands in front of the Coliseum cinema on Gran Vía.
Nick Lloyd leads historical tours in Barcelona and runs the website www.iberianature.com