The day Mussolini bombed our village ...

Yesterday, as I was walking across the market square here in sunny Sant Feliu de Guíxols, something caught my eye. It was one of those tourist information plaques that the town council has taken to putting up around the village. Even though I'm not a tourist I always take the time to read them. It's great to find little nuggets of historical information dotted around to fire your curiosity as you go about your daily business. And this one was so sensational that it stopped me in my tracks and called me over to read all the small print.

You see it told the story of how the village had been attacked by three Italian fighter planes on 22nd January, 1938. They came out of nowhere and started dropping bombs on the market square. They blew up our lovely old town hall that had been built back in the sixteenth century.

Town Hall, Sant Feliu de Guíxols
Town Hall, Sant Feliu de Guíxols

Then they blew up the public baths, the village school and the Passeig, the sandy boulevard, where the locals go for a stroll in the cool of the early evening. Thirteen people lost their lives that day, and another forty five were seriously injured.

Our village? The Italians? It made no sense to me whatsoever. This is a quiet, peaceful little place that doesn't seem to be of any strategic importance to anyone. Why on earth would Mussolini and the Italians have ever wanted to bomb us?

I went home bemused, but curious to get to the bottom of what had taken place.

I did a little research to try and put the pieces together.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out, way back in 1936, Sant Feliu, like most of Catalonia, sided with the Republic against Franco and the Nationalists. Most of the rest of the world stood by and signed a non-intervention treaty whereby they agreed that they would't get involved; they'd leave it to the Spanish to sort themselves out.

Only it wasn't quite that simple. Not everyone honoured the notion of non-intervention. In particular Franco was able to count on two very powerful allies, who supported him to the hilt. Hitler and Mussolini, the two other Fascist dictators who were making waves in Europe at that time, recognised Franco as the man in charge very early on in the conflict and started supplying him with arms to fight the Republicans.

 The only countries that seemed wiling to proved any practical assistance to the Republic, on the other hand, were Mexico and the USSR, as it then was. But the big strategic problem with their assistance lay in getting their supplies home to where the Republicans needed them. Most of the land frontiers were effectively sealed against the Republic as a result of the non-intervention treaty. The only practical route lay over the sea, which is why little places like Sant Feliu de Guíxols became strategically important. With its large sheltered harbour it wouldn't have been a bad place to land munitions for the war effort.

Boats on the beach, Sant Feliu de Guíxols, Catalonia
Boats on the beach, Sant Feliu de Guíxols, Catalonia

Mussolini also faced a backdoor challenge at home. There were many people within Italy who were fundamentally opposed to his regime, significant numbers of whom were happy to skip across the Western Mediterranean to help the Republicans in their struggle against Franco.  If they had returned to Italy, motivated and energised by a victory against Fascism in Spain, they could have represented a significant threat to the stability of the Fascist regime in Italy. In short Mussolini had a real interest in defeating the Republic.

The beach, Sant Feliu de Guíxols, Catalonia

And that was why he sent the Aviazione Legionari with over seven hundred fighter planes to help Franco bomb the living daylights out of the Republicans. Hitler also sent the Condor Legion from Germany with almost three hundred planes - they bombed Guernica, over in the Basque country (infamous for being the first instance when carpet bombing was used against a defenceless civilian population for no strategic purpose other than to crush their morale, and famously painted by Picasso).

The harbour, Sant Feliu de Guíxols, Catalonia

And so that's how my village became a strategic target and got blown up by Mussolini. I know that horrible things happened to innocent people on both sides of the Spanish Civil War, but, given where I live and who my family are, I feel a connection with the people who held on for dear life in this quiet little backwater. And it seems to me that it must have been a terrifying business.  From time to time Franco sent his heavy battlecruisers up the coast to bombard Sant Feliu and the other Republican villages along the Costa. They'd turn up in the bay and sit there strafing the town with mortars and gunfire. Over seventy people lost their lives in the course of these bombardments.

The Spanish Civil War was the first conflict in which aerial warfare played a decisive role.  The intensive bombardment of the Republican territory created a new precedent for modern warfare in which the focus of the attack moved away from the frontline towards the rearguard where the civilian population found themselves in the firing line.

Memorial plaque to the 70 citizens who died in the bombing of Sant Feliu during the Civil War
Memorial plaque to the 70 citizens who died in the bombing of Sant Feliu during the Civil War

Today, walking around in the sunshine it's hard to believe what happened here, and it's even sadder to think of all the other places in the world today, some 75 years' later, where innocent civilians still live under the threat of indiscriminate attack by aerial bombardment.

All the best,

Bonny x