Category Archives: Spanish Civil War
The 20th of November 2005 marked the 30th anniversary of the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco and with it a time to reflect on the events which brought him to power. The trauma of the Spanish Civil War was arguable the most acute in Spain’s history, surpassing the defeats of 1898 or the debacle of the Armada of 1588.
Franco and Hitler
The country ripped itself apart, feeding off extremism, both domestic and foreign. The Soviet Union supported the fast fragmenting Republican left, while Germany committed the infamous Legión Cóndor and Italy the Corpo Truppe Volontari to the Nationalists.
To these external powers it was a chance to further their political aspirations and test new military hardware. France and Britain remained neutral, appeasing Hitler and openly discouraging support for the Spanish 2nd Republic. To the ordinary Spaniard the choice was less clear.
Following the military dictatorship of Rivera and the restoration of democracy in 1931, the government swung from a left coalition to the centre-right coalition which included the conservative Catholic CEDA. Finally in 1936 power rested with the Popular Front a coalition of socialist, communist and anarchist groups. Mismanagement and a disastrous agrarian policy left much of the country in crisis. This general discontent led directly to the right-wing coup attempt of the 17th of July 1936.
The attempt failed, but its momentum was impossible to stop. Spain became polarized, people caught on the wrong side of the divide suffered terribly. Atrocities on both sides claimed the lives of tens of thousands. The resulting Civil War was fought by Spaniards for control and security of their homeland. While 40,000 volunteers formed the International Brigades to primarily fight fascism, in the service of the republic. Andalucía itself was polarized, with Seville in the hands of Franco’s Nationalists; the vulnerability of Málaga became obvious. On the 17th of January 1937 three Nationalist columns approached the city, the Italian Volunteers from the North, from the west came General Quiepo de Llano with his Army of the South and from Granada Munoz’s forces completed the encirclement, reaching the periphery of the city on the 3rd of February.
Although large numbers of republican troops were available for the defense of the city, bad organization made them no match for the disciplined Nationalists. The ringing of the church bells in Málaga would warn of yet another air-raid, the German and Italian aircraft coming two or three times daily. The indiscriminant bombing and strafing, sent the population scurrying to the rocks and caves of the cliff face or racing into the hills above the town. The flimsy houses of the exposed town suffered immense damage as total war was unleashed on the civilian population.
The journalist Claude Cockburn wrote in The Daily Worker: “If you were to imagine, however, that this terribly hammered town is in a state of panic you would be wrong. Nothing I have seen in this war has impressed me more than the power of the Spanish people’s resistance to attack than the attitude of the people as seen in Málaga”
On the 8th of February, Nationalist forces entered the city and an exodus of one hundred and fifty thousand refugees started. The pitiful progression of humanity included civilians and the fleeing Republican militia, turning the coastal road to Almería into a human quagmire. Constantly harassed by the Legión Cóndor from the air and shelled by the Nationalist vessels Canarias and Almirante Cervera from the sea.
The highway became littered with the dead, people and animals putrefied by the roadside as the endless procession of bewildered human debris passed unseeing. The scene of human depravation was a forerunner of what was to come. Over the following eight years millions of displaced people haunted the major routes of Europe away from Nazi tyranny.
Almería swelled with the human influx. Those who couldn’t find shelter simple camped in the streets. Exhausted by the 200 kilometre trek, without food and with limited water the situation was desperate.
On the evening of the 12th Nationalist forces bombed Almería. Ten bombs fell on the huddled exhausted refugees. Among the casualties were children queuing for preserved milk and dry bread. No attempt had been made to attack a Republican battleship in the harbour or the militia barracks.
The terrible events on the road to, and in Almería were only part of the horror of the Spanish Civil War. Atrocities were committed on both sides of the conflict. Losses were between 500,000 and 1,000,000, depending on which figures are used. If it is true that the character of a nation is not determined by crisis, but by how the country comes through that crisis.
How did Spain fare?
Franco brought some liberalisation to Spain as he tried to find a place for it in Europe, but the sceptre of the Civil War hung over the Dictator and his country. With the death of Franco in 1975, came an opportunity to reconcile and to forgive and to finally prove that Spain was a country equal within a community of democratic European states.
Defeated Republicans cross the Pyrenees
In the introduction to the book Heart of Spain The former Minister of Education and Culture, Esperanza Aguirre Gil de Biedma gives an insight in just how this was achieved, echoing the optimism of all Spaniards and of the foreign nationals who have made the peninsular their home.
“…….Those events should not be consigned to oblivion, having been overcome by means of our constitution, that instrument of concord, and by the vigorous Spanish reality of our time, based on the peaceful coexistence of all Spaniards and our mutual confidence in our future”
The air raids which succeeded the Battle for Madrid in late 1936 became one of the first in history to target civilians. Franco personally ordered the bombardment of the city’s residential areas, with the exception of the Salamanca district. This wealthy area of central Madrid housed the core of support for Franco and the insurgency within the city.
So why did Franco order such a cynical airborne assault?
The failed coup d’état of April 1936 projected itself into Civil War, the cruellest form of conflict. Mola and Franco wanted a swift defeat of the Republic which was in disarray. The Government couldn’t trust the army and the Civil Guard had defected in numbers, only the assault guard remained loyal. The Militias, mainly the Anarchist CNT and UGT trade union were given arms, even if of poor quality. Of more than 50,000 rifles given to them, only some 5,000 actually worked. Madrid was there for the taking.
The dash for the capital, La Marcha as it became known, involved columns moving on Madrid from the north and south. Elements of the Army of Africa, Ejército de África, moved north from Seville. After securing the Portuguese border and taking the town of Badajoz, they would link with Mola’s columns moving south. The mode of advance was to be swift. Only engaging Republican forces which could threaten the overall strategy. Republican forces fought several battles, trying to halt the northward march of the Madrid Columns.
JU 52 drops its payload over Madrid. Nov 1936
With the defences of Madrid not yet complete and the arming of the militias still under way, Madrid lay open. Franco however ordered the columns to detour to Toledo to relive the siege of the alcázar. The question of why Franco took this decision remains unanswered. The defence of the alcázar became legend among the Nationalists and their supporters. It had become so celebrated that perhaps he thought he had no choice but to take the action he did. The surrender of the alcázar would have freed thousands of republican troops to harass the columns from the rear.
Whatever the reason it allowed the organisation of Madrid’s defences. Mola´s fifth column inside Madrid itself, saboteurs and informers, kept the advancing nationalists up to date with preparations. The effect of the delay must have been apparent to the advancing troops.
By the 7th of November 1936 the battle for Madrid was imminent.
The Nationalist columns intended to attack through the Casa de Campo after a diversionary feint against the Carabanchel areas of south eastern Madrid. The Army of Africa being ideally suited to this type of warfare. Advancing over open ground.
Republican reconnaissance units discovered intelligence in a captured Italian tank outlining the area of attack and details of the diversionary action. The Republican commanders deployed some 28,000 of their troop in the Casa de Campo with 12,000 remaining in the southern suburbs. With the assault halted both sides dug in. The nationalist then tried to press home their attack in the Carabanchel districts, where they had made the first diversionary drive. Franco’s Army of Africa couldn’t adapt to street fighting whereas the militias opposing them were probably born and bred in the very area. The resultant stalemate lasted until March 1939 with very little change in the relative positions of the belligerents. The battle lasted until the 23rd of November.
It was the militias who stopped the initial Nationalist advance on Madrid. The first column of the Internationals Brigades, the 11th Brigade, took an active part on the 8th of November. There were many reasons Franco did not to take Madrid in the early months of the War. The delay while the siege of Toledo’s alcázar was lifted, committing troops more used to warfare in the desert to street fighting. The failure to surround and isolate Madrid with the roads to Barcelona and Valencia remaining open until after the Battle of the Ebro in November 1938.
Was it Franco’s frustration with the stubbornness of Madrid’s defenders which caused him to order the aerial bombardment?
One may be cynical and suggest that the intervention of Hitler and Mussolini had something to do with it. The fascists of Germany and Italy had invested a great deal in the Spanish Civil War. They needed to test the resolve of the democracies. Hitler always believed they wouldn’t fight. He had new untried weapons and tactics. The blitzkrieg looked good on paper but he needed practical proof.
Was it on Hitler’s orders that Madrid be given time and allowed to prepare? He needed the right conditions for his experiments.
Franco swore he would destroy Madrid rather than leave it in the hands of the republic. From the 19th of November German bombers supported by Italian fighter aircraft hit the city. Whether Franco or Hitler initiated the air raids is arguable, but their effect was a propaganda failure with limited strategic success.
Foreign correspondents attacked the bombing in their newspapers across the globe. Notable observers like Hemingway berated the Nationalists for their action. Photographers such as Robert Capa produced images of the distraught population amongst the ruins of their homes.
Some bombs were said to be anti-personal, making a small crater but spewing sub-munitions laterally. The number of casualties and the tonnage of the bombs dropped is unknown. In one day Junkers 52s delivered 36 tons. Nowhere near as intensive as the raids during the second world war, but the art was still being developed.
A Madrid street November 1936
By early 1937 Republican fighter opposition forced the bombers out of the sky during daylight hours reducing their effectiveness. The land battle to the west of Madrid became virtually static with both sides exhausted. Life in Madrid became surreal.
Officers would leave their hotels and go to the trenches by tram. When their shift was over they would simply catch a tram home again. The battle grounds of the Casa de Campo and the University City became one of the sights of Madrid.
The bombing did not terrorise the people of Madrid into submission. Even during the most intensive period from the 19th to the 23rd of November 1936, trams still operated and the daily search for food continued. Of the many lessons that the axis powers learnt from the bombing of Madrid the most important element remained unlearned. Masses of data in terms of equipment and tactics gave Hitler and Mussolini a valuable military insight into air warfare. However, the resolve of the people of Madrid only stiffened in the face of the aerial bombardment.
The people of London, Nottingham and Liverpool to name but three cities showed the same resolve and courage. A resolve which was eventually victorious, unlike people of Republican Spain.
If the democracies had taken a stand in Spain, would there have been a blitz on British cities? In that event would the reward for the sacrifices of the madrileños been victory?
Bombing of Málaga 1937 © unkown
The Road to Almería
To say Málaga was a doomed city is easy with hindsight. Due to Franco’s failure to take Madrid by storm in late 1936 the battle-lines to the east of the city had become deadlocked. The new strategy was to isolate Madrid by cutting the road to Valencia. In February 1937 the Nationalists launched an offensive to force a crossing over the River Jarama.
In Málaga the situation was desperate. Of the 12,000 Republican defenders less than 4,000 had rifles with little ammunition of which even less was usable. The Republican Prime Minister, Largo Caballero, had said ‘Not a round more for Málaga’.
The defence of Madrid was the Government’s priority but the growing anger over Andalucía’s virtual autonomy may have affected this decision. Elements of the anarchist militia, the CNT and armed communists defended Málaga. The former completely caught up with their social revolution and the organisation of the new farming communes. The latter enjoying their new found prominence brought about by the increased influence of the Soviet Union in Spanish affairs. There were no trenches dug or roadblocks erected. The only act against the Nationalists was to shoot hostages as a retaliation against air-raids. Málaga was under constant bombardment, from the air and sea. While the Nationalist fleet including the German heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee shelled the City, Republican warships at Cartagena remained at anchor.
Colonel Villalba the Republican commander in Málaga was of variable ability. His inability to organise its defence was either dereliction of duty or a deliberate act of sabotage. There is strong evidence for the latter. Facing these fragile defences of the ‘White City’ were four Nationalist columns under the overall command of the Duke of Seville. This was the first action for the CTV, Corpo Truppe Volontarie the Italian expeditionary force in Spain.
On the 8th of February the City fell.
Arguably the reprisals taken by the Nationalists were the most appalling acts of terror during the whole war. Some 20,000 were executed. The bewildered and demoralised defenders that fell into the enemies hands were simply shot out of hand. The killings continued until 1944. Carlos Arias Navarro, the prosecutor responsible for the horror was Franco’s last Prime Minister holding office in 1975 and subsequently under King Juan Carlos.
The nationalist column attacking from Granada purposely left the coast road out of Málaga open. Not from any concern for the civilian population but to allow escape and so reduce resistance within the City. It was on this road that the refugees began their tortuous 200 kilometre march to Almería. From Sunday the 7th of February some 150,000 refugees left Málaga. Estimates put the number arriving in Almería as only 40,000.
Members of a British aid team carrying supplies originally destined for Málaga encountered the refugees on the road. Their initial impression was of horses, mules and donkeys loaded with household effects being drawn by their sullen masters. These were the strong. As they drove on the whole horror of the situation became clear. Thousands of unaccompanied children bedraggled, exhausted, cold, bewildered and frightened, aimlessly followed. Their feet swollen and bleeding from the ordeal. It was then that they realised the scale of the disaster. Mothers and Fathers followed carrying, consoling and protecting their children. The old lagged further and further behind, falling by the wayside waiting for the inevitable. The pitiful procession not only suffered the elements but the indiscriminate bombing and strafing from the fascist air-force. Remains of the dead were still being found in the 1960s and many more wait to be discovered.
Driving on towards Málaga, the aid team’s progress became increasingly more difficult. The sheer number of refugees halted their progress some ninety kilometres from Almería. They started ferrying children to the temporary safety of Almería. It was only a small van and they carried between 30 and 40 children a trip. To choose which children to take, which to leave behind must have been harrowing for the aid team.
The population of Almería doubled with the influx of almost 40,000 refugees. Shelter was scarce with most sleeping in the streets. A large queue formed outside the Provincial Committees for the Evacuation of Refugees store for food. Many children waited for preserved milk and dry bread, their first food for many days. It was the evening of the 12th of February. The final cynical act was about to be played out as the air-raid sirens started to sound. Fascists aircraft bombed the centre of Almería The queue waiting for food took a direct hit as ten large bombs devastated the small town. No attempt was made to hit a Republican warship in the harbour or the military barracks. Over one hundred civilians mainly refugees were killed or injured.
Many photographs exist of these events. Robert Capa and Gerda Taro used their expertise and compassion to show the injustice and suffering. Looking at these faded nitrate prints we again see the faces of those devastated people. We see the long pitiful procession of displaced people. Tragic scenes which over the next eight years became familiar all over Europe.
If Málaga was sacrificed by the Republic, it was due to military expediency and therefore understandable. Unlike the policy of non-intervention of western democracies which led to the sacrifice of Spain. It was these democracies that reaped the whirlwind of Nazi aggression, honed and practised in Spain. It was the war in Spain that assured Hitler that the democracies would not fight. It was that assurance that influenced his decision to invade Poland.
Would intervention by Britain, France and the United States have saved Spain from Franco? Possibly, but there was no will to get involved. Society gossip filled the front pages of British and French newspapers, with the war almost an afterthought. The last despatch by Delaprée, Spanish correspondent for the Paris Soir stated, ‘the massacre of a hundred Spanish children is less interesting than a sigh from Mrs. Simpson’. With that sort of indifference the policy of non-intervention was inevitable.
Kati Horna © Magnum Photos
We’re here for the Republic
On July the seventeenth 1936 the failed coup of Mola, Franco and Sanjurjo resulted in Civil War. The people were armed via unions such as the UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores) and CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) halting the Nationalist advance west of Madrid and pushing them out of Barcelona. The Madrid lines held until the first international column of volunteers arrived on the tenth of November. It was a desperate attempt to stop the advancing Fascists in Madrid’s Casa de Campo.
Foreigners flooded to Spain some crossing the Pyrenees on foot before moving down to Barcelona. It was mostly ordinary workers with a smattering of intellectuals and adventurers who came. Not all came to fight with rifle and bomb, some came as journalists to report the truth. The new advances in photographic technology by Rolleiflex and Leica helped bring a new breed of newspaper correspondent, the photojournalist. The medium format Rolleiflex available to the public since 1929, was a twin lens reflex camera allowing portability and reliability. The 35mm Leica was even smaller. The superb quality of the lens allowed the small negative to be enlarged in the dark-room, making the tiny device a practical tool. The Leica, particularly the Leica III range introduced in 1933 became legend, its distinctive profile is still copied today by compact digital camera manufactures.
Well known photographers such as Spain’s Agustí Centelles, Poland’s David Seymour (Chim) and Hungary’s Robert Capa are well documented but not all photographers were men. The tragic Gerda Taro a German of Polish decent and Kati Horna from Hungary are arguably the best known female photojournalists.
Both Taro and Horna were close friends of Capa. Taro was his colleague, companion and lover during her brief photographic career. She died at the Battle of the Brunette in 1937 while still in her twenties. Capa taught her photography and naturally her style initially mimicked his, later however she developed an approach of her own. Taro spent an increasing amount of time away from Capa, their business activities requiring him in Paris. This allowed her to develop as an individual. Her developing style becomes obvious as one compares the images they made together. Capa dedicated the book Death in the Making to her. This reads: “For Gerda Taro, who spent one year at the Spanish front – and who stayed on.”
Kati Horna, born Kati Deutsch broke new ground in the photography of conflict. She documented the effect of war on the non-combatants. The suffering of the civilians caught up in a conflict which was not of their making. Much used today, however in the thirties it was a new and radical approach. Unlike Taro, Horna survived the war and finally settled in Mexico with her partner, the Spaniard José Horna. José had been imprisoned by the Nationalists in 1938 before Kati rescued him. They then made their way to Paris, the United States and finally Mexico City. Kati Horna died in 2000 leaving a horde of photographs from the Spanish Civil War. These have since been scanned and archived. Although she never gained the fame and notoriety enjoyed by some of her contemporaries, she was at least their equal in photographic ability.
The exploits of these photojournalists have been told and retold, to some extent cleansing their true characters. Making them squeaky-clean, they were in fact human-beings with all the faults associated with their dangerous but highly visible careers. Of the five photographers mentioned, three Taro, Capa and Chim died while covering conflicts around the world. Taro was killed at Brunette in 1937, Capa died in 1954 in French Indochina and Chim lost his life during the 1956 Suez War.
Using the camera in support of a cause for which one is sympathetic must test one’s powers of impartiality. The phrase ‘The camera doesn’t lie’ is one of the greatest misconceptions ever. The camera has always lied and it is becoming easier to ‘doctor’ an image. The pressures on these photojournalists to portray ‘action’ images or images which would show the Republic in a favourable light must have been tremendous. It is now known that Capa changed the provenance of his ‘Fallen Soldier’ image. It was taken at Espejo and not Cerro Muraino as he suggested. This is not proof that it was staged but as there was no reported fighting at Espejo when Capa was there, some doubt must be cast on its validity. Who took which picture is also in dispute, particularly between Capa, Chim and Taro as they worked together on occasions and I would imagine shared equipment. One picture attributed to Taro taken on board the warship Jaime I in Almería harbour, appears to show herself in the shot. There is never ending debate regarding authenticity and title.
Despite all of the controversy over one or two images the vast bulk of their work remains a testimony to their skill, compassion and bravery. The impact of these monotone images is not diminished by the absence of colour. Colour would only be a distraction.
Centelles’s images show the bitter street fighting, mourning mothers and wives as they weep uncontrollable over the corpses of their loved-ones. Perhaps his most poignant images are those of shuffling masses of refugees heading north across the Pyrenees and into internment in France. Frail women consoling frightened children in the hastily erected French camps. Uncertainty and fear all too evident on their young faces. David Seymour (Chim) specialised in photographing children. He photographed the orphaned and the injured. Images of children with missing limbs playing football on crutches, trying desperately to regain normality by performing a familiar task. One of his images simply shows two Republican militiamen gently carrying a heavy crucifix to safety. The impact of this photograph in the propaganda war was immense.
Capa reacted with people, if ever there was a person who possessed the ‘common touch’ it was he. His images are well known and moving. At Montblanch in October 1938 he captured the faces of the parading soldiers. The pride and resignation as they said goodbye to the International Brigades. One can see the fate of the Republic in the eyes of these men. Their gratitude to the departing columns and the belief in their now almost certainly lost cause. It is arguable a masterpiece of photojournalism. Taro, who fell somewhat under the shadow of Capa, made some moving images of the refugees.
from Málaga as they tried to find safety in Almería. Of the children once more, the innocents who suffered so badly. Left to her own devices she tended to be more openly political. She covered conferences and meetings, helping the propaganda machine of the Republic. Horna was overtly political and much involved with the anarchist cause. Her images depict those behind the lines. The agrarian struggle which was a major cause of the War, threshing grain and ploughing amidst the uncertainty of war. The backbreaking toil with antiquated and inefficient tools. Her work above all others echoed many of the causes which led to war.
We still have the same breed of photojournalists today. It is still an extremely dangerous and necessary job. We have seen a new wave of development in photography, long focus fast lenses, digital cameras and sophisticated editing software. These are simply tools however. We still need the courage, compassion and dedication of individuals to produce moving and thought provoking images
© John MacDonald
125,000 foreign nationals came to fight for Spain’s Second Republic during those desperate years of civil war. At least this was the hugely inflated figure published by Franco’s foreign Ministry in 1952. Andreu Catells estimated the number at 60,000 in his book Brigadas Internacionales de la Guerra de Espana written in 1974. Some served with the militias but the vast majority with the International Brigades. Catells’s figure of 60,000 probably includes the Spanish serving with the brigades of which there were many drafted in to make up numbers after initial heavy losses. In September 1937 a decree by the Republican Government ensured a Spanish presence in the Brigades. The decree ruled there must be a Spanish battalion in every International Brigade, a Spanish company in every battalion and a Spanish section in every company. The Spanish Brigaders were paid almost a third more than their foreign counterparts. An accepted figure today for the number of foreigners in the Brigades between 1936 to 1938 is just over 35, 000 from 53 nations. This figure is insignificant compared to those who intervened on the behalf of the Nationalists.
The outwardly simple task of counting the volunteers is not easy. Some used assumed names, some epithets and a surprising number appeared to have changed their identities several times. This was to try and keep on the right side of the Non-intervention Agreement which the British Government had extended to include the situation in Spain. Under the Act it became illegal for ex-prisoners of war to return to Spain. James Rutherford, despite changing his name was re-captured by the Nationalists and duly shot on the strength of the act. The British Government also reimplemented the Foreign Enlistment Act which further legalised the execution of more British volunteers by Franco’s men.
Of the 35,000 Brigaders some 2,300 were British. The earliest arrivals, after an inactive couple of months with the Tom Mann Centuria fought with the German Thaelmann Centuria or the French Commune de Paris Battalion. The British Battalion of the 15th International Brigade wasn’t formed until the December of 1936. Of the original 19 Britons serving with the Commune de Paris Battalion only nine survived the war. James Albrighton and 14 other British nationals served with the sinister Muerte es Maestro Centuria which took part in the furious defence of Madrid in the November. This action alone reduced the Centuria to 40 men from an initial strength of 128.
As the casualties mounted so recruitment slowed, falling off sharply in February and even further in the March of 1937. The background of the volunteers also changed with the frivolous thinking twice. No longer seen as good sport for adventurers, it was instead a good way of getting yourself killed. The largest age group was 21 to 30, with almost a third from south east England mainly London. The four most common occupations listed by the Brigaders were Labourer, Miner, Motor Driver and Seaman.
These men came despite the hostility of the British establishment. It wasn’t just the stream of pro-Franco lobbyists being warmly greeted by Government departments, it was an active involvement with the events unfolding in Spain. The aircraft that collected Franco from his internal exile on the Canary Islands was paid for with British cash. It delivered him to Spanish Morocco where he could oversee the embarkation of his Ejército de África onto Hitler’s JU-52s bound for the mainland. The journey was organised by the British Secret Service and accompanied by a British Major and his daughter. Recent de-classified papers at the Public Records Office in London show the extent of MI6 involvement. The Rapide aircraft piloted by Captain Cecil Bebb and on hire from Olley Air Services at Croydon aerodrome was authorised at the highest level of the British establishment. Major Hugh Pollard, his daughter Diana, and another young woman Dorothy Watson were also on the flight which collected Franco. Nor were the British press sympathetic to the volunteers, only four of the hundreds of daily newspapers in the country showed anything like sympathy. This attitude only began to change when the refugee Basque children arrived in Britain during 1937.
The British Brigaders fought on all fronts from Lopera to Belchite including Jarama. Here the British rifle companies totalling 400 took 275 casualties in the desperate attempt to hold ‘Suicide Hill’. The machine gun company had been supplied the wrong ammunition and had to hold off the advancing Nationalists with small arms. When the correct cartridges did arrive they were boxed and had to be belted by hand before the heavy machine guns could be deployed. The British Battalion was also actively involved in the last major action of the War. At the Ebro, they took considerable casualties trying repeatedly to capture Hill 481, ‘The Pimple’ as it was known to the Brigaders. Their attempts were unsuccessful. Without the reserves and infrastructure possessed by the Nationalists this battle ended like most others during the conflict with a Republican rout.
In October 1938 the British Brigaders left Spain, leaving some 500 dead. Returning to, at worst a hostile reception and at best ambivalence. The world war which followed vindicated them in the eyes of many and the Law of Historical Memory honoured them with Spanish Citizenship. They were on the losing side in a pivotal war in world history. They were fighting for a democratically elected government and for freedom and this is how they should be remembered.
There is a sculpture to their memory on London’s South Bank. The inscription reads. ‘They went because their open eyes could see no other way’
Who do we celebrate? The labourers and bus drivers who gave up everything, who went to fight against fascism, or the peers and politicians who actively supported and helped Franco. Conveniently forgetting their involvement with the start of the Second World War.
NB: For the total number of Brigaders I have accepted Richard Baxell’s figure but I accept it is still under debate.
Franco and beyond: His legacy and a discussion into the effects of a Spanish Republican victory in 1939
On the 1st of April 1939 Franco declared the Civil War to be at an end, Republican refugees poured into France and were interned in camps such as Gurs and Vernet others headed for the hills carrying on the fight with the Maquis, those with means or influence fled to the Soviet Union, Mexico or Chile. Five months later, Hilter invaded Poland, and Britain declared war on Fascist Germany, diverting the world’s attention away from the Iberian Peninsular.
Francisco Paulino Hermenegildo Teódulo Franco y Bahamonde Salgado Pardo de Andrade
During those early months of the Second World War, Franco’s purge of Republican sympathisers was very thorough, the number who met their ends in cellars or on the remoteness of the campo can only be estimated. This butchery was not of prime importance to the policy makers in London, it did not weigh heavily on their consciences, the problem which kept them awake at night was how to stop Franco bringing Spain into the War as an Axis power.
Spain was in no shape to wage war, its infrastructure was destroyed and its once vast gold reserves, fourth largest in the world had been lost. The Republican finance minister Dr. Juan Negrín had sent half the reserve to Moscow, much to Stalin’s delight, while of the remainder; some went to France and the rest to the republican government’s purchasing commissions, set up by Indalecio Prieto of the PSOE to obtain war materials.
It wasn’t however the materials and men that Spain could deploy against Britain which gave the ministers of the Crown nightmares, it was quite simply Gibraltar. A Gibraltar in British hands and a neutral Ceuta, some 20 Kilometres distant on the North African coast, meant the Mediterranean was open to the Royal Navy. Offensive operations could be launched while maintaining a supply line to Malta, and re-supplying friendly forces such as Tito’s Partisans in Yugoslavia, Franco held the key and it was in retrospect a pivotal key.
The British government approached their tasks on three fronts. Firstly a blockade, to let just enough material into the country to keep the population focused on survival. Secondly, making the Madrid government financially dependent on the western powers with loan bonds issued through Washington and London. Thirdly, although not proven, wheeling and counter dealing directly between Churchill and Franco. This last scenario would go a long way to solving two mysteries of the war years.
On the 12th of November 1940 Hitler issued his directive number 18. The first part dealt with relations with France, the second with Spain and Portugal and Spain’s prompt entry into the War. In January of 1941 Operation Felix was planned to begin, German forces moving into Spain from Vichy France, moving south and overwhelming Gibraltar’s defences. Once the Rock fell, two divisions of German troops would cross the Straits and garrison Ceuta, closing the western Mediterranean to the Allies.
The only step necessary to the realisation of this plan was the agreement of Franco; he would have had a great deal to gain by being instrumental in an Axis victory. Hitler and Franco met in a railway carriage at Hendaye on the French Spanish border in late October 1940. Franco made such demands that the German leader could not deliver; 700,000 tons of grain, fuel for the entire Spanish army, re-equipping the Spanish army, the French African territories of Morocco and Oran handed over to Spanish control and redrawing the borders of the Spanish Sahara. Franco may have been a despot but he was not a stupid man, he held his position with such vigour that Hitler was reported as saying he would rather have three teeth pulled than speak to Franco again.
Why did Franco insist on these demands which he knew could not be delivered?
By late October it was clear that the Luftwaffe would not gain air superiority over the RAF and therefore no invasion of Britain, obviously prolonging the war, a crucial factor considering the philosophy behind the German armed forces. They were designed for Blitzkrieg, followed by occupation. Fast moving ground troops coupled with a tactical air force were not meant to fight a war of attrition. An unconquered Britain not only meant a large well armed belligerent war machine operating on Hitler’s doorstep, it all offered a springboard for forthcoming allied offensive.
Was all this clear to Franco?
Did he foresee in the eventual intervention of the United States?
The successful outcome of operation Felix could have radically altered the war’s course, so what did Franco get for the frustration of Hitler’s plans?
Could this be answered by the second mystery?
When de Gaulle’s 2nd armoured division entered Paris in August 1944, many of the tank crews were ex-soldiers of the Second Spanish Republic, they had fought the Fascists from Madrid to the Aragón, from Paris to Berlin, they were confident the fight would be taken back to Spain. Certainly General Alvarez had no doubts, at his headquarters in Toulouse plans were in an advanced state. Just the threat of a full scale Allied invasion may have been sufficient to force Franco to negotiate. Even a strong Republican force crossing the Pyrenees with Allied air and material support would have poised a serious problem to the Franco regime. But it was not to be. The only action sanctioned by the Allies was a foray of 150 men into the Spanish Pyrenean foothills with disastrous results and a demoralising retreat.
Was a deal done between Franco and Churchill in those dark days of 1940?
Was it a case of the security of Gibraltar in exchange for the final extinguishing of the Republican cause?
If Franco did foresee the defeat of Nazi Germany, did he also foresee the falling of the Iron Curtain and the American paranoia against all things Red.? In mid 1960 Eisenhower paid 1.8 billion dollars into the Spanish coffers in exchange for the construction of four bases.
On the 1st of April 1939 Franco declared that the Civil War was at an end, it wasn’t until mid 1960 that he declared the Spanish War had been won.
Are the wounds still suppurating?
I had the opportunity of speaking with some Civil War veterans. They included ex-combatants and civilians living in the villages of the Sierra Subbètica. I was a bit concerned about the willingness of people to speak openly and imagined conversing in hushed tones while secreted in some dark corner. The reality was different people spoke openly even with enthusiasm interrupting each other to get their point across. The progress of time had certainly numbed many raw nerves.
I met Amalia in Zuheros as she enjoyed the early evening breeze sitting on her doorstep with two of her neighbours. We discussed the events of over 70 years ago. Her most vivid recollection was the arrival of the Falangists in the village. They shaved her hair for reasons she didn’t understand “They took my hair away but left a knot on the top of my head. They dragged me by it”. Those with a grudge against her family or perhaps afraid of similar treatment jeered as she was paraded around the village. When I asked about executions she simply said that some men had been ‘taken away’, old feuds settled. It was simple! Tell the local militia commander that your rival was of a different political persuasion. He did the rest.
Another resident of Zuheros José Poyato, told me there were Rojos in the hills between Zuheros and Baena . They exchanged fire during the day. At night they used the echoes from the surrounding Sierra to call to their friends in the opposite camp. One man told me that Republican militiamen slept in the village after firing on it during the day. The Republicans never entered the village in anger and from the way he was speaking the stand-off was good sport.
In Iznájar I met Antonio whose uncle had served with the Nationalist Ejército de Africa in Spanish Morocco. His uncle had told him that in 1936 the local council was Republican. After they communalised the produce from the surrounding wheat fields they are olive groves now, support was lost and the Nationalists replaced them. A Republican force from Loja did try to retake the town but were driven back by the small garrison. The handful of defenders moved quickly from position to position making the enemy believe they were there in greater numbers. Those I spoke to who were involved with the Nationalists had little or no contact with the Italian or German war machines. Their only interests were, first survival and second what was best for their village. Politics was of no interest to them and the grandiose plans of the Republicans meant nothing if the agricultural system collapsed. The only reticence in answering my questions came about when I mentioned the bombing of Almería, Málaga, Guernica and Madrid. “We didn’t command the Condor squadrons!” was the terse reply, this was my only question that seemed to concern them.
The Restaurante Rosi is at the northern end of Iznájar’s Bridge and here I met Fernando and Manuel. Both from families who supported the Republic. Fernando was twelve when the Falangists came for him, tipped off by a friend. Fernando spent two weeks living rough in the campo trying to avoid the death squads. He told me that his family gave food to the Maquis, Republicans who carried on the fight after Franco’s victory in 1939. When I asked them whether they had any knowledge of the International Brigades, Manuel told me of his uncle who saved an Italian serving with the Garibaldi or Figlio Brigade. “He was being hunted by the Italian Fascists, my uncle hid and fed him”.
When asked if they had any bitterness towards Britain and the United States for not ousting Franco in 1945 they just shrugged their shoulders. “We were not interested in politics, if it got to dangerous to be republican we became Nationalists” said Fernando. This philosophy was repeated by most of the village people I spoke to. The importance of politics diminishes the closer to the soil one lives.
These people supported who ever they needed to in order to survive, in that respect they were impartial. Their wounds were not sectarian and must therefore be resilient to re-opening. It is for us outsiders that impartiality is a problem.
One particular villager, a learned man who enjoyed the simplicity of village life informed me that the impartial account of the Civil War has yet to be written. I realized how true this was when in Zuheros. While interviewing one of the village elders he referred to the Rojos in the hills! Zuheros was Nationalist! This shook me. I have an affinity with Zuheros and an intense hatred for fascism so my very simple mind told me unconsciously that Zuheros must be Republican. To discover it was Nationalist was very worrying. Even I, a foreigner who was born over a decade after the events in question couldn’t manage impartiality!
I do not believe that the people of the Sierra Subbètica have much interest in whether or not pensions are awarded to the few remaining ex-combatants. They have put the past behind them and in its rightful context. Their wounds are now tough scar tissue. They may not forget the past but they have forgiven.
A photo journey
Patricia Díaz Pereda.
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