At eight minutes past ten on the night of 16 March 1938 the city’s air raid sirens went off, signalling the start of a nightmare which would not let up until over 41 hours later. In that time Barcelona suffered as many as 14 air raids by the Italian air force based in Majorca. Chaos and terror reigned in the city and by the end of the three days over 500 people had been killed and 1,500 wounded. On top of that, 76 building had been completely destroyed, 97 seriously damaged and 273 affected to varying degrees.
The bombs that were dropped on Barcelona during those three days in March 1938 were not the first, but did represent the most intense and prolonged period of bombardment. So much so that Franco himself asked Mussolini to reduce the intensity. It was the latter that ordered the raids. During one raid a bomb made a direct hit on a military lorry carrying explosives along the Gran Via, multiplying the effects of the explosion to the extent that the Italian pilots themselves were surprised at the havoc caused by the bomb.
Photos taken from the bombers show the impact across the whole city and a huge trail of smoke coming from the junction between the Gran Via and C/ Balmes. The entire section of pavement on the mountain-facing side of the Gran Via, between the Coliseum theatre and C/ Balmes was completely destroyed. Margarita Andreu’s monument Encaix was installed in that same spot in 2003, in remembrance of the victims of the air raids on Barcelona.
The Spanish Civil War is known to have been used as a testing ground, in particular for the Italian and German armies, and Franco’s ally Mussolini had no qualms about ordering an indiscriminate attack on Barcelona in an act of war which had not been seen until that point. The goal was not the battlefront itself, but well away from the front in order to terrorise the civilian population and prompt despondency.
After the clashes in July 1936 and having quashed a military revolt, Barcelona regained some sort of normality. This is explained by the urban history guide Rereguarda/BCN, published by the MUHBA: “Even so, the city continued to live, fighting to achieve a normality which would enable citizens to work, cover their needs, look after themselves, get around and even have fun”. Even though people knew there was a war on, the front and the battlefield were far away and they tried to live as normally as possible.
It was on the night of 13 February 1937 that the war reached the streets and squares of Barcelona. Towards 10 pm on that Saturday night, while large numbers of people were at the cinema, at the theatre, in bars listening to the jukebox, or at home getting ready for bed, the Italian cruise ship Eugenio di Savoia took up a position off the Barcelona coast and indiscriminately fired as many as 24 howitzer rounds at the city. Barcelona had actually already suffered attacks, but up until then the objectives had been strategic and military targets at the port. That night was the first time the civilian population had been the target.
That first attack highlighted the need to build air-raid shelters for people to take cover from the bombs. Metro tunnels were made ready (at that time the only lines were the Gran Metro and the Metro Transversal), as well as those along the Sarrià train line and the line under construction in Av. Meridiana. As explained in the urban history guide Defensa/BCN 1936-1939, published by the MUHBA: “Politicians, military personnel and citizens from various sectors became involved in preventing the attacks and their consequences. One of the most active was the Councillor for Urban Development and Works, the trade unionist Manuel Muñoz Díez, who was responsible for the first Anti-aerial Passive Defence Service. This body offered advice and regulated the construction of air-raid shelters built by locals in the form of mined chambers with no cladding. It started the excavation of the first 24 shelters and ordered the construction of ten larger shelters”.
After the attack on 13 February 1937, the sound of air-raid sirens was heard more often. The sound of the sirens didn’t always mean bombs were dropped on Barcelona, although there were bombardments in one place or another. The Italian air force had a base in Majorca and attacked the entire peninsular coastline, from Andalusia to Portbou. Worth noting is that radar was still an experimental affair at that time and the only means of detecting planes was by hearing or seeing them. That meant one could know when planes were approaching, but there was no way of knowing precisely whether they would end up dropping bombs on Barcelona, Castelldefels or Mataró.
In the first few months of 1938 Barcelona suffered some of its deadliest attacks. On 30 January that year, at five to nine in the morning, six Savoia S-79 planes from the Italian air force bombed the city centre. One of the worst affected spots was Pl. Sant Felip Neri. Two and a half hours later, when emergency teams were working to rescue victims, a second attack took place. Of the 216 fatalities that day, 42 people died at Sant Felip Neri, 30 of them children who were taking refuge under the church. The shrapnel damage to the façade of the church can still be seen today and in 2007 a plaque was put up in the square in memory of the victims from that day.
The second large attack was the one on 16, 17 and 18 March. The sirens went off continually, those signalling the end of an attack overlapping with those signalling the start of another. Over the three days some people lived in the air-raid shelters and metro stations without leaving, even taking mattresses with them to sleep on and stoves to cook what food they’d been able to take with them. Later, and up until Franco’s troops entered the city via Av. Diagonal on 26 January 1939, bombs continued to fall on the city, although there was no other episode with the intensity and virulence to match those early months in 1938.
There have been many wars throughout history and many populations have gone through attacks, but never before had a civilian population been hit behind the battlefront. Barcelona with the first city in history which, although not on the battlefront, was indiscriminately and systematically bombarded.
The Museu d’Història de Barcelona (MUHBA) publishes a collection of urban history guides, two of which trace the history of the city in those years. Rereguarda/BCN, which looks at what life was like in the city during the war, and Defensa/BCN 1936-1939, which explains how people coped with the air-raids.
Photo captions: Gran Via, between C/ Balmes and Rambla de Catalunya, on 29 March 1938, two weeks after the bombardment. Author: Pérez de Rozas – AFB. | Guards removing personal items from inside a building affected by a bomb in the Poble-sec neighbourhood while medical personnel look on. Author: Pérez de Rozas – AFB. | Evacuation of the wounded, trapped in a bombed building in May 1937. Author: Pérez de Rozas – AFB. | Queue for the cinema at the start of August 1936. Author unknown – AFB. | Façade of the Sant Felip Neri church today, still scarred by shrapnel from the bombardments in January 1938. Author: JAF. | Clearing rubble from a building hit by a bomb in May 1937. Author: Pérez de Rozas – AFB. | Rescue work in the wake of an air raid. Author: Pérez de Rozas – AFB. | Two guards looking after a pile of books and other items following a bombardment, 17 March 1938. Author: Juan Lapuente – AFB. | The sculpture Encaix, in memory of the victims of the air raids on Barcelona. In the Gran Via, by the Teatre Coliseum.Author: JAF.