The Spanish Civil War may have ended nearly 84 years ago, but the conflict left an enduring mark on Alicante. The city was a long way from the ground fighting, but Alicante and its people suffered greatly from what was then the frightening new terror of air raids.
It’s estimated that more than 500 Alicantinos were killed in over 70 attacks by Francoist forces; one source puts the total as high as 740. Even eight decades after the war ended, you can see some of the marks the raids left on the city. Here’s a guide.
Mercado Central raid, May 25, 1938
An attack by the Italian air force on May 25, 1938 killed more civilians than any single bombing raid anywhere in Spain during the Civil War.
The death toll was on the same scale as the notorious bombing of Guernica in the Basque Country the year before. The difference was that Guernica had Pablo Picasso to immortalise its suffering, while the horror of Alicante has faded into history.
More than 300 civilians died around the Mercado Central that day. Most seem to have been caught in the open, doing the morning shopping at the stalls at the rear of the market building. Around 1,000 more were injured.
The air raid warning had failed to sound, possibly because the Italians had avoided detection by attacking the city from inland, rather than from the sea. There was no radar back then.
Huge civilian casualties in air raids would become all too familiar in the Second World War just a few years later. But the Alicante attack was shocking at the time, and made headlines across Europe.
It’s often said that the Spanish Civil War was a dress rehearsal for World War Two; it certainly introduced Europe to the terror of mass bombing of civilians.
The square behind the Mercado Central, where most of the casualties died, is named Plaza de 25 Mayo and there are commemorative plaques there. Many of the dead were buried in a common grave at the Cementerio Municipal on the outskirts of Alicante.
Visit an air raid shelter
The Republican authorities did build underground shelters to protect at least a proportion of Alicante’s population. More than 90 of them were constructed across the city.
The shelters in Plaza de Séneca and Plaza de Dr Balmis are open to visitors on an excellent guided tour Book in advance, cost €5, which also includes the Centro de Interpretación on the corner of the square.
The Plaza de Séneca used to be the city’s main bus station: the rather elegant old terminal building still dominates the square. The air raid shelter underneath was only re-discovered after the bus station shut for good in 2013. The shelter could house up to 1,000 people at a pinch, but that must have meant standing room only inside.
The visit is an eerie experience, especially when the lights flicker off and the unsettlingly realistic sound effects of an air raid are played over a speaker.
Those taking refuge inside the shelter were told to keep quiet during raids – which must have been a really big ask – both to avoid panic and so they could hear the all-clear sirens once the bombing stopped.
There was also the risk of loose talk being picked up by Francoist spies: a sign on the wall warns of the danger (see pic below).
The shelter in nearby Plaza de Dr. Balmis is much smaller, housing up to 250 people. It was privately built and more comfortable. Most people inside got to sit down and it at least had electric lighting.
More shelters are being refurbished and opened up around the city centre. A free tour takes you to visit two more.
One is inside the old Fábrica de Tabacos (tobacco factory), which could take up to 1,500 cigarreras – women cigarette makers. The workforce was almost entirely female – highly unusual for the time – as women were reckoned to be better at the delicate task of cigarette making.
Email to join the 2-hour tour here or call +34 693 771 105. They run on Friday evenings (1800), Saturday and Sunday mornings (1000) from April 2023 onwards. More info here.
The other refugio, in the Plaza Castellón, looks like a giant manhole cover in the middle of the square. You’d never know there was a shelter down there. Until, that is, your guide presses a hidden button and the covers slowly open to reveal a flight of steps down into the refugio itself. This one could accomodate up to 400 people.
Take a look at this 360 degree interactive map for more info on other nearby shelters.
Anti aircraft batteries
To try to defeat the threat from the air, anti-aircraft defences were built on the Cabo de Santa Pola, the peninsula jutting out into the sea to the south of Alicante. Remains of the bunkers and gun positions have been preserved there. Follow the road to the lighthouse (turn off the main N-332 coast road about 6km south of El Altet).
The gun positions are signposted and a short walk from the car park. Don’t miss the skywalk on the clifftop by the lighthouse while you’re there…the views are spectacular.
The batteries were positioned to fire on aircraft attacking Alicante from the sea. As we’ve seen, the main threat to the city came from the fascist Italian air force based on the island of Mallorca, only 300km from Alicante.
I’m no military expert, but it’s unlikely the firepower of the Santa Pola batteries presented too much of a threat to the attackers, especially in the absence of radar. And tragically, the ordinary citizens of Alicante were the ones who paid the price.
© Guy Pelham
For more on the Civil War in Alicante, try these posts:
- Repression and exile – the aftermath of the Civil War in Alicante
- The story of the Stanbrook, the British steamer and her heroic crew who rescued thousands from the Alicante dockside.
- Why Spain’s wartime government spent its final desperate days in a country mansion in the hills behind Alicante.
- Miguel Hernández: the story of Alicante’s Civil War poet