Photo by David Murano
Air raid shelter
Refugi 307 in Poble Sec
“I do not at all underrate the severity of the ordeal which lies before us; but I believe our countrymen will show themselves capable of standing up to it, like the brave men of Barcelona.”
From Winston Churchill’s ‘Finest hour’ speech to the British House of Commons, June 18th, 1940
On the surface, Barcelona is in many ways an archetypal 21st-century city with a multicultural population and streets filled with innovation. However, lying below ground in different parts of the city are refugis aeris, public air raid shelters, constructed during the Spanish Civil War. They bear testament to the years between 1937 and 1939, when Barcelona became one of the first cities in the world whose civilian population was targeted for attacks, despite the fact that the fighting of the war was taking place elsewhere.
When Churchill spoke the words quoted above, he was referring to the imminent danger of bombing attacks on British cities by the German air force, and singled Barcelona out not only for the fact it was an early victim of urbicide (killing of a city), but also because the response of its citizens to this threat was proactive and practical, with many people working together to construct the air raid shelters that saved thousands of lives.
Air raids started on Barcelona on March 16th 1937, at 10.08pm. With front-line fighting still nowhere near the city, Barcelona’s war until then was largely characterised by shortages of food and other goods, the arrival of refugees from elsewhere in Spain and the movement of soldiers to the front. All this changed when planes of Franco’s Fascist allies, Italy and Germany, began dropping their bombs on the city. For them, Barcelona and other Spanish cities like Guernica presented an opportunity to test the strategy of attacking civilians, and the Italians sent a plane equipped with a camera to capture images of the results.
Testament, too, to the newness of the air raids is the fact that in the early days, when the planes flew overhead, people went out on the streets to see what was happening. But this quickly changed. Instead, the people of Barcelona took matters into their own hands, constructing many of the city’s 1,300-1,400 air raid shelters, and neighbourhood associations such as festa major organisers moved into action to manage the building of the underground refugis. Some funds were provided by the city council and Generalitat, and engineers provided the designs, in particular one Ramón Perera, now credited as the principal architect of Barcelona’s shelters. The actual building work, however, was done by the elderly, women and children who made up much of the local population by that point. One eyewitness, Josep Roig, interviewed for a 2006 TV3 documentary on Perera recounted, “It was a general and fast phenomenon. In four days, we built 1,200 shelters!”
At the same time, new initiatives like the black-out and evacuating children to the countryside began, and metro stations were used as an alternative to the specially-constructed refugis. All were forerunners of how other European cities would react to air raids just a few years later in the Second World War.
Understanding what it was like for a city to be used as a bellicose guinea pig by the Axis forces is not easy for many of Barcelona’s inhabitants today—however, a trip to a shelter, such as the one in Nou de la Rambla, can provide an idea. This Poble Sec shelter was numbered 307 by the civil defence organisation of the time, and approaching its entrance nowadays, at the bottom of Montjuïc, this number is proudly displayed in large figures. It wasn’t so for many years—during the Franco dictatorship, a glass factory was built on the site and the shelter was not rediscovered until the factory closed and was pulled down.
Visitors today take a guided tour through the winding passageways where over 1,500 people sought refuge some 70 years ago. There is a soundtrack of planes flying low overhead, the whistle of bombs approaching and rats scurrying. Lot of information is provided by the guide during the visit, including an explanation of the restrictions on what people were allowed to bring with them, how they would use the shelter even when no raid was on and what happened to it in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Some of its characteristics are striking: a source of running water was discovered when constructing the sick-room, and separate toilets for men and women were built at each of its three entrances. It may be long empty, but visitors can imagine the benches that ran along all the walls full of people sitting and waiting for the latest raid to be over.
Despite the important role they played, for a long time the refugis were forgotten and/or ignored, and many were destroyed. And while several refugis have been uncovered over the past decade or so, these rediscoveries did not mean that the city was prepared to confront their significance in the context of its past. Only four years ago, the historian Andreu Besolí Martin wrote an article in the magazine Ebre about the shelters, describing them as invisible to the citizens of Barcelona, a consequence of the “incomprehensible pact of silence” that came out of the transition to democracy in Spain. He lamented the fact that while places like London and Berlin, whose civilian populations were also subjected to wartime air attacks, had created museums and educational centres dedicated to the subject, in Barcelona there was a lack of both institutions and publications that could tell people about the shelters and their importance.
Since his article was published, Besolí told Metropolitan, there have been shifts in attitude with regards to the refugis “not only in Barcelona, but also in Catalunya and the rest of Spain.” The 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the war in 2006 resulted in the renovation and opening of various other shelters (Sant Adrià and La Garriga amongst others).
Shelters such as that in Nou de la Rambla helped protect people from the 194 air raids carried out over the city. Still, approximately 2,500 people died and many were injured. However, in a population of a million, and considering the revolutionary nature of the raids, it could have been much worse.
Finally, despite Churchill’s belief that Britons would follow Barcelona’s example, it was not to be. Ramón Perera, a refugee from the Nationalist forces, was spirited to the UK by British authorities interested in his designs for underground shelters. However, ultimately, the government decided that creating such public shelters could make people ‘cowardly and lazy’, and felt that the community spirit that had motivated the citizens of Barcelona to make their shelters did not exist in Britain. Confidential reports later expressed regret that the Perera model had not been adopted; in London alone, some 40,000 people died in air raids.
Teresa Papiol; 99 years old
"I went to a shelter just once in El Clot, to a shelter which was under the train station—it was used by many workers. I went with my husband and two children, Josep who was three and Domenec who wasn’t yet one. The day afterwards, back at home, I realised that Josep had got lice from being there, because it was really dirty. The people there were poor and not clean. And so we decided not to go back to the shelter. After that, when the planes came all the family got into bed together so that if there was a bomb we would all go together."