Court accepts plea to probe bombing of Barcelona during the Civil War

Legal action opens the door to prosecute Italian pilots for war crimes

Jacinto Antón

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A view of the effect of Italian bombs during the Spanish Civil War.
A view of the effect of Italian bombs during the Spanish Civil War.

Buonamico, Cassiani, Rossagnigo, Di Tullio, Corti, Montanari, Ruspoli, Zucconi... It sounds like the line-up of the Italian national soccer side, but it is in fact a list of members of a different, much more sinister kind of team.

They are the names of some of the 21 fascist pilots who are the target of a legal complaint by two victims of the air raids against Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), as well as by Altraitalia, an association of Italian residents in the Catalan capital.

The accusation of war crimes focuses on the events of 1937 and 1938, when Mussolini's air force conducted saturation raids against the Spanish city; there were 12 particularly savage attacks over the space of 41 hours between March 16 and 18, 1938.

In a historic move, the Provincial Court of Barcelona has finally admitted the claim and says it will initiate proceedings against the squadron leaders.

The initiative might be considered astoundingly useless by some, considering that 75 years have elapsed since the events, and that the pilots in question are probably not up for much, if any are indeed still alive.

One individual who surely won't care less is Captain Aldo Quarantotti, who was a lieutenant colonel in the Italian air force on July 12, 1942, when a Spitfire piloted by Canadian flying ace George Buzz Beurling, the "Knight of Malta," blew his head off over the Mediterranean island. So Quarantotti at least can be definitely scratched off the list.

Almost 50 tons of bombs were dropped, killing at least 670 people

"We know we're going to run into cases like that," says Newton Bozzi, a lawyer and Altraitalia member who filed the charges together with Jaume Asens, of the human rights commission at the Barcelona Bar Association. Bozzi sounds less concerned about the pilot's fate than about the fact they will no longer be able to haul him to court.

'But, like the judge's report says, there are notable cases of longevity, like for instance the two individuals who lodged the complaint, so we cannot rule out that some of the people on the list are still alive," he adds.

The black list of 21 aviators has been drawn up approximately, he explains, "using the data we had and support from historians." They are all, says Bozzi, "officials in the Aviazione Legionaria, the expeditionary corps in Spain, leaders, notorious commanders."

The claim is based on the fact that the Italian pilots bombed the civilian population in a premeditated and cruel fashion, despite -- and this is key -- the fact that there was no declaration of war between Spain and Italy.

The plaintiffs say that, no matter how elderly the pilots might be today, this is not just a symbolic act. "Make them face justice? Why not?" exclaims Marcello Belotti, also of Altraitalia, who was a driving force behind the initiative and is still angry at Mussolini, "whom we managed to hang by the feet at Piazzale Loreto." Belotti underscores that in the case of the pilots, we are dealing with "highly specialized servicemen, very aware and very proud of what they were doing, very ideologized people who decided over life and death from the skies and never expressed any regrets."

Belotti notes that these aviators were very different from other Italian combatants who were sent into battle by Il Duce, "poor Sicilians taken out of the countryside and the mines, who were promised heaven on earth in Spain, as Sciascia describes in L'antimonio."

The pilots were very aware and very proud of what they were doing"

As for the pilots, "what needs to be done is to find out if they are alive and subpoena them," Belotti says. The Barcelona court will ask the Italian Justice Ministry for cooperation in finding the whereabouts of the suspects. These include noteworthy figures such as Captain Orlandini, who went on to participate in World War II; in 1940 he was at the controls of a Stuka, the famous dive bombers that the Nazis gave Italy in tiny doses.

There is also Major Quattrociocchi, who was incorrigible; despite the armistice of 1943 between Italy and the Allies, he remained loyal to Fascism and commanded the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana (ANR) right to the end.

In 1998, the Catalan historian and documentary maker Xavier Juncosa had the dubious privilege of meeting the two pilots who head the black list, Paolo Moci and Alberto Lauchard, at Rome's Casa degli Aviatori. "Back then they told me that they were the last two remaining members of the Aviazione Legionaria, and both have since died," he recalls.

But underneath the venerable grandpa exteriors he found iron-hard military men. Moci even justified the bombing of Gernika, which he took part in at the head of a patrol of three Savoia S.79s. Juncosa, for his part, applauds the decision of the Barcelona court.

Italians' bad military reputation, an erroneous cliché, has relegated the role of their air force during the Spanish Civil War. All the "glory" went to the German Condor Legion. But the truth is, the Italians have always been great pilots, from Francesco Baracca, the ace of the Cavallino rampante (the prancing horse), a symbol later adopted by Ferrari, to Mario Visintini, who was immortalized by Italian comic book creator Hugo Pratt. And the Aviazione Legionaria (which comprised 6,000 combatants who had nearly 800 aircraft at their disposal), and most especially its bombers (like the excellent Savoia-Marchetti SM.79) were a highly effective, terrible and brutal weapon against Spain.

The fascists loved aviation, which evoked images of the modern man: untamed, manly, strong and violent. This love of flying was captured by people such as Il Duce's third son, Bruno Mussolini, who was a bomber pilot and joined the Aviazione Legionaria in Mallorca (although Franco made him return to Italy).

Although they are not usually given credit for it, it was the Italians who to some extent invented air raids against civilian populations as a way of demoralizing the enemy. In the early 20th century, General Giulio Douhet was a prescient champion of strategic bombing, which he defined as "an act of war far from the battlefields, to hit cities among other things."

The Spanish conflict allowed the Italians, just like the Germans, to conduct experiments in air warfare (they, too, kept meticulous accounts of the effects of the bombs). In fact, several of the Italian pilots who fought in Spain later participated in the little-known Italian air raids against cities during the Battle of Britain (the Chianti raiders who flew out of Belgium).

In fact, some authors describe the tremendous air raids of March 1938 against Barcelona as a cynical exercise in empirical data gathering. But the historian Edoardo Grassia believes that Mussolini wanted to impress Hitler and came up with this infernal way to do so.

The order, according to notes made by the foreign minister at the time, Galeazzo Ciano, was given personally by Mussolini to the chief of staff of aviation, General Valle, who sent a famous telegram to initiate violent action against Barcelona. In view of the horrified international reaction to the raids, the Italians later tried to pretend it was Franco's decision.

The attacks came in successive waves from a base in Mallorca. By day it was the aircraft of the 8th Stormo Bombardamento Veloce ("the Falcons of the Balearics") and by night it was the XXV Gruppo Autonomo Bombardamento Notturno. The total tally was nearly 50 tons of bombs dropped, which killed at least 670 people and injured another 1,200.

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