Madrid under fire, 1936 - 1939
Rebel troops made relatively fast progress towards Madrid in the first months of the war, though by November 1936 the front lines had become rather static and there was no much change till the fall of the capital on March 28, 1939. The western front was in the outskirts of the city (Ciudad Universitaria) for most of the duration. Towards the north, the advance of the rebels was contained already in 1936 at the heights of Somosierra, some 100 Km. from Madrid, while Getafe (about 15 Km from Madrid) was roughly the closest front line to the south.
With the long range guns available at the time it was relatively easy for the rebels to hit specific targets in town from a considerable distance with a degree of accuracy. Shelling of the capital commenced nearly immediately after hostilities were declared.
The southern and western sections of town saw the worst of the damage, but shelling hit all over, particularly the tallest buildings in the center of Madrid used as observation points by the defenders. The Telephone Exchange Building in Gran Via (the city's tallest building at the time) was a favorite target of rebel troops and was hit hundreds of times, but its massive walls withstood quite well the damage and the building was quickly refurbished after the war.
A notorious shelling episode took place exactly at midnight on December 31, 1936, when the rebels fired at regular intervals 12 rounds of 155mm from one of their Schneider guns placed in Getafe. The target was Puerta del Sol, in the heart of the city, where many people traditionally gather the last night of the year. Needless to say Puerta del Sol was practically empty that particular night. There was a lapse of tranquility and then shelling resumed and continued till dawn.
The first air bombardment of Madrid during the civil war took place on August 28, 1936, at a quarter to midnight. For a few days prior to this date the rebel aviation had bombarded several airfields in the vicinity of Madrid, but the extent of the damage and casualties was somewhat limited.
As from early September air bombardment over the capital escalated and continued for the two following years, causing numerous victims among the civilian population. December 1936 and January 1937 saw some of the worst bombardments of the war, coinciding with the moment the front lines stalled around Madrid.
It has been argued sometimes that rebel air raids were aimed at strategic or military targets only, though this is futile if we consider the technology of the day didn't really allow for precision air bombing. It is safe to say the vast majority of casualties were civilians.
Often, air raids in Madrid would take place in the very early hours of the morning (ie around 5am) by Junkers Ju-52 airplanes flying solo. These early airplanes were quickly nicknamed “el lechero” (the milkman) and “el pajarito” (the birdie) by the people of Madrid. The common nickname for all of them was "pavas" (peacocks).
Sometimes air raids were carried out by a small squadron of airplanes painted in a black livery. These were known as “las viudas” (the widows) by the population.
The Junkers Ju-52 was by far the favorite aircraft of the rebel aviation when it came to bombing urban centers. They came to Spain in 1936 and 1937 in fairly big numbers as part of the contribution of Hitler’s Germany to the rebel side, and reached a sinister notoriety after the bombardment of the Basque town of Guernica in 1937.
Other airplanes used by the rebels for this purpose were the Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 and SM 81.
At the beginning of the war Madrid was ill prepared to cope with the event of an air raid. Although some dedicated shelters were built, most of the population took cover in the basement of buildings and in subway stations.
As the war advanced and more buildings were obliterated by the bombs, an increasing caseload of homeless people populated the streets of Madrid and made of the subway their permanent home.
These pictures were taken between 1936 and 1938 by Atienza, Antifafot, Llado, Kodak and Mayo, some of the photographers who covered the war in Madrid and whose work can now be seen in the recently declassified “Archivo Rojo” (literally “Red Archive”) at the Spanish Ministry of Culture.
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