Landmarks of the Civil War in Alicante, 80 years on

The Spanish Civil War may have ended 80 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 put 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.

Raid on Alicante
An air raid on Alicante – one of over 70 during the war. The harmless-looking white puffs are bomb explosions. Picture: Archivo Aeronaútica Militar Rome

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 war. The death toll was on the same scale as the notorious bombing of Guernica in the Basque Country the year before. 

Mercado Central Alicante
Alicante market suffered the worst casualties of any single bombing raid of the whole Civil War.

Alicante may have been a major port, but it was a long way from the fighting, so it really was a soft target. More than 300 people 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 right 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.

Mercado Central Alicante
The plaque on the rear wall of the Mercado Central reads; “on 25 May 1938, the city of Alicante was bombed by the Fascist Italian airforce, resulting in more than 300 civilian victims. This square is dedicated to their memory”
Memorial Alicante Mercado Central
The metal plaque on the floor at the rear of the market remembers the dead of the Mercado Central.
Alicante market clock
This clock is preserved in Alicante’s Mercado Central: it was stopped at 11.20am by the blast of Italian bombs in the raid of May 25, 1938

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. 

Memorial Alicante cemetery
This plaque remembers “more than 500 victims of 71 fascist bombing attacks during the Civil War, the bloodiest of which was on  25 May 1938, at the Mercado Central. Many of the victims lie here in this common grave”

Air raid shelters

The Republican authorities did build underground shelters which could 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. 

Shelter in the Plaza de Séneca, Alicante
The concrete entrance to the air raid shelter in Plaza de Séneca, with the old bus station in the background. The shelter was re-discovered after the bus station closed in 2013.
Entrance, Plaza de Séneca shelter
One of the two entrances to the Séneca shelter. All shelters had at least two entrances/exits in case one was blocked by debris. During the war, the entrance would have been protected by sandbags, not the modern concrete.

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.

Air raid shelter, Plaza de Séneca
Underground in the Plaza de Séneca shelter. The thick walls that divide up the space support the weight of the concrete roof. The electric lighting is a modern extra.

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 below).

Air raid shelter, Plaza de Séneca
“Keep silent during the alert”: instructions on the wall of the shelter to those taking refuge. Keeping quiet during the terror of a bombing raid must have been a tall order.
Air raid shelter, Plaza de Séneca
A faded warning on the shelter wall against loose talk: Espia oye (spies are listening). You never knew who might be sitting next to you in the shelter during a raid.

The shelter in nearby Plaza de Dr. Balmis is much smaller, housing up to 250 people. It was privately built and was slightly more comfortable; most people inside got to sit down and it at least had electric lighting.

Shelter entrance, Plaza de Balmis
The steep stairway into the Plaza de Dr Balmis shelter
Plaza de Balmis shelter
The slightly more comfortable surroundings of the Plaza de Dr Balmis shelter. At least people got to sit down.
Plaza de Balmis shelter
A modern steel structure marks the entrance to the Balmis shelter

Alicante city council is now (late 2019) looking at opening up five more air raid shelters, including one at the Mercado Central.

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, near the airport. 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 while you’re there…the views are spectacular.

Civil War bunker, Cabo de Santa Pola
This bunker formed part of Alicante’s Civil War defences, near the lighthouse on the Cabo de Santa Pola. The geographical survey point on the roof was added later.
Anti aircraft battery, Cabo de Santa Pola
Anti-aircraft 150mm gun position, Cabo de Santa Pola, now decorated with the inevitable graffiti

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, flying across the Mediterranean from its base 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 citizens of Alicante were the ones who paid the price.

© Guy Pelham 2019

These are far from the only marks left on the city by the Civil War; see my post here for more.

And for more on the civil war in and around Alicante, take a look at these posts:

  • 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.

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