“The Martyrdom of Madrid” – Louis Delaprée


What follows is a first-hand account of the aerial and artillery bombardment of Madrid in November 1936. These excerpts are taken from the reports of Louis Delaprée, the correspondent of the French newspaper, Paris-Soir.

According to Hugh Thomas in his book The Spanish Civil War the bombing of Madrid was part of an experiment. It was to be the first major city to be subjected to concentrated aerial and artillery bombardment. The German officers of the Condor Legion were interested to see the reaction of the civilian population to a carefully planned attempt to set fire to the city, quarter by quarter. The bombing concentrated as far as possible on hospitals and other important buildings such as the Telefónica … Between 16 and 19 November as many as a thousand civilians were killed. This sustained attack was just a foretaste of what was in store for London, Hamburg, Tokyo, Leningrad and many other cities with large civilian populations during the Second World War.

We start Delaprée’s account with an un-dated report which was published 19 November:

For twenty-four hours we have been walking in the blood and breathing flakes of fire. Every instant the tide of blood grows higher and the walls of fire draw nearer. Tonight none can flatter himself that he will see the dawn, the first morn of the fifth month of the war of Spain


The first aerial raid at five o’clock marks the beginning of a series of attack, slaughters, fires, that go on still, relentlessly, at the moment I write to you. As soon as the ring of bells of ambulances that go over the streets of the town to pick up the wounded has died away, the sirens of another alarm howl a new warning


Noon – Shrapnels whistle over Spain Square. The passage becomes dangerous. Men escape and do not know whither, women fixed on the spot by fright, cry, grind their teeth, fall on the pavement. Panic grows like a tide and submerges Madrid, Under the breath of shells, the glass windows tremble, the windows open by themselves, courage breaks up.


5.30 p.m. Another shell of great calibre hits the corner of the Central, and wounds mortally two passengers. The poor wretches are carried to the hall of my hotel, placed just in front and are stretched out on arm-chairs. Their blood flows on the flagging. Those who go to and fro, walk on the puddles. Bloody soles are impressed alternatively on the white and black square tiles, like some baneful signs on a chess board.


6.30 p.m. A rain of shells falls on the central quarters. In the telephonic Central, nine tenths of the last inhabitants of the hive throw themselves towards the cellar. But the indispensable operators remain at their posts, their helmets on their heads. The journalists continue to dictate imperturbably their papers. (Published 19 Nov. 1936)


18 November: Silence this morning on all the fronts of Madrid. The town, after the nervous crisis of last night, is dumb and prostrated. People go still about the streets. But they pass very close to the walls, give apprehensive glances to the sky … poor people dragging along their clothes, their mattresses and the disquietude, roam in the streets to look for an underground shelter … Children do not even play in the lane. Like their mothers, pressed against them, they look straight before them, with an expression of tragic distress. Hope has reappeared this morning when a squadron of nine government planes passed over our heads going to bombard the enemy … Night begins to fall . The sirens are howling already.


19 November: Still another horrible night … Five times the squadron flies over our heads. Fifteen bombs explode within a tract of some hectares round the Telephonic Central and my hotel, the Gran Via hotel. At a hundred metres from the former three women and six children are mangled. A militiaman is beheaded under the porch of the same house. Blood has flowed to the very middle of the street. It is impossible to reckon up the number of dead and wounded. But it can be feared that last night’s record of 250 dead, 600 wounded has been broken


29 November – 5. a.m.: At the junction of Alcala and Gran Via a hand clings to my leg. I free myself and lighting a match, I bend over … It is a young woman, the nose already pinched by the approach of death. I do not know where she has been wounded, but her dressing gown is red with blood. She mutters – ‘See, see what they have done.’ And her hand sketches a vague gesture. Another match. ‘See, see’ The bloodless hand continues to point something out to my attention. I think at first that it is the pool of blood that expands over the pavement. ‘Look’. I bend down and I see on the waste of glasses a little child crushed … An ambulance passes slowly. We call. A man comes down. The luminous sheaf of an electric torch lights the corpse. ‘Dead’, says the man briefly. ‘We shall collect tomorrow. The wounded first.’


The enemy’s squadrons appeared at three o’clock in the morning … At 8 o’clock and 7 o’clock a.m., and 3.30 p.m. they came back. It was well done work, a copious and carefully dosed watering of all central boroughs … The aerial bombardment, which undoubtedly has been deemed insufficient, is joined by artillery bombardment. … Nothing can be done. We must wait the end of this shower of murdering meteors, to wait till the dead and wounded will be numerous enough to quench the thirst of General Franco’s Gods.


Undated: General Franco suffered yesterday one of the worst failures he has met with since the beginning of the siege of Madrid. His desperate attacks have been repulsed on all fronts. And on all fronts the government’s troops taking the offensive have won ground … In the sky the day is not less lucky for the government. Twenty fighting planes suddenly appear while three enemy’s planes fly over the town. One of them falls blazing … The others flee. Shortly before five o’clock, five rebel bombing machines escorted by 13 fighter planes appear to the east of Madrid … 36 government fighter planes swoop upon them. The insurgents shun the combat and 500,000 persons gathered in the streets and on the roofs salute their flight with wild shouting.


I admire the courage of a population subjected to perils, threatened by horrors and who nevertheless do not lose their courage. Madrid has not enough to eat, she burns her furniture to keep herself warm, but Madrid does not surrender … Madrid holds out and ever shall.


Louis Delaprée became increasingly frustrated and fell foul of the editorial policy of the right-wing, mass-circulation newspaper. His reports were heavily edited, taken off the front page and consigned to obscurity on an inside page, and finally rejected altogether as the rift with head office became insuperable. Delaprée filed his last report from Madrid on 4 December, 1936, the day that the media flood-gates opened on the scandal of King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson. In a withering report, Delapree dictated: ‘You’ve only published half my articles … I’ll fly back on Sunday unless I suffer the same fate as Guy de Traversay, which will be all right, for thus you would also have your dead. Till then I shall send you nothing. It is not worthwhile. The massacre of a hundred Spanish children is less interesting than a Mrs Simpson sigh.’


And he did suffer the same fate of his fellow journalist who had been killed by the Francoists in Mallorca. The French plane on which Delaprée was travelling was shot down, and he was not one of the survivors. This event still gives rise to controversy. On the one hand, claims were made at the time that he was targeted because he was regarded by some as a fifth columnist. This accusation may have arisen from the fact that his heavily edited articles did not portray the true situation in Madrid in November 1936. On the other, it can be argued that it was not in the interest of the Francoists to have the truth about the bombing of a civilian population centre freely publicised throughout Europe. A third possible explanation, given that the craft was not clearly marked as French, is that it may have been downed by one side or the other as an enemy plane in a case of mistaken identity. Whatever the explanation, what cannot be denied is that the writings of Louis Delaprée cannot be ignored by anyone who wishes to know the truth about the Martyrdom of Madrid.