Spain’s “Historic Memory” and Links with WWII

Geoff Cowling 

HM Consul General Barcelona 2002/5 (retired)  

In October 2007, the Spanish Parliament passed a controversial law “to recover Spain’s historic memory”, specifically aimed at researching and commemorating events which took place in the Spanish Civil War and thereafter. Alone among Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, The Catalan Government set up a specific government department, Memorial Democratic, to do this. Since then they have funded several projects including marking the crossing points of the 1939 “Retirada” into France.  

In January 1939, up to 500,000 refugees fled across the Pyrenees into France in atrocious weather. A few years ago, Catalunya opened the Museu de l’Exili at La Jonquera on the Catalan French border to mark this “Retirada”. Many refugees managed to flee further and today they form the Catalan and Spanish Diaspora in Mexico and Argentina. Those who stayed in France faced an uncertain future when the conflict in Spain spread to the rest of Europe and France itself was occupied by Hitler’s troops – blitzkrieged by the Luftwaffe whose pilots had honed their tactics against the Spanish Republican Air Force. France established camps for Spanish Republican refugees in Rivesaltes and Argeles. Conditions were appalling; 15,000 died. Once France was fully occupied, 2000 Spanish Jews were taken, many by the Vichy police, and handed to the Germans for extermination in Auschwitz. Other Spaniards were used as forced labour in German factories. An unknown number lie in British soil – they died building the extensive coastal fortifications still to be seen in the Channel Islands. Thousands more perished in Mauthausen concentration camp. 

But not all were subjugated. Remnants of the Spanish Republican Army infiltrated into the French Pyrenees where they formed the backbone of the Maquis – referred to by Professor Sir Paul Preston as the “Spanish Republican Army on Tour”. Armed by SOE, they operated as far north as the Dordogne. They were not always popular with French civilians. The Maquis would attack German troops, for example at the Col de Rille above St Giron in August 1944, but the Germans took savage reprisals, devastating nearby Rimont and slaughtering its inhabitants. The Spanish Maquis led by Commander “Robert” went on to capture the strategic Pyrenean town of Foix before handing it over to the French Resistance.

Other Spanish Republicans served further afield. Many were recruited into the French Foreign Legion in 1939. On the collapse of France some made it to the UK where they were incorporated into the Free French and British Armies and went on to serve as commandos in Narvik, Crete and North Africa. A substantial proportion of the troops and tank crews of General Leclerc’s 2nd Armoured Division which liberated Paris in August 1944 were Spanish Republicans. Their tanks bore the names Ebro, Teruel, Belchite, Madrid and Guadalajara. They went on to take part in the liberation of Strasbourg and the Battle for Germany itself. Few survived.

Spanish Republicans contributed to the Allied victory in other ways. The work of double agent Joan Pujol Garcia, known to the British as “Garbo” and to the Germans as “Arabel”, was acknowledged by General Eisenhower as decisive to the success of the D-Day landings. Initially “handled” by Tommy Harris of MI6, Garbo persuaded the Germans, via a network of 28 fictitious agents, that Normandy was merely a diversion, that the main Allied force would invade the Pas de Calais. As a result, the Germans kept substantial armour in Calais for two months after D-Day. For this key deception Garbo was later awarded the MBE by the Duke of Edinburgh in London’s Special Forces Club. The Germans had previously awarded him the Iron Cross…. 

Many others helped evading Allied Servicemen to cross the Pyrenees from Occupied France to Spain where they contacted the British Consulates in Bilbao and Barcelona. Memorial Democratic has marked the end of the symbolic Cami de la Libertat from St Giron in the Ariège across the Pyrenees to Esterri d’Aneu in Catalunya to commemorate the Pat O’Leary escape line. Among the many who took route over the eastern Pyrenees included the two surviving Cockleshell heroes Maj Blondie Hasler and Bill Sparks. Airey Neave, who escaped from Colditz and went on to be Margaret Thatcher’s right-hand man, was taken over the Pyrenees onto the British Consulate in Barcelona by a Catalan group led by Francisco Poznan Vidal. Executed by the Germans in August 1944, Poznan received a posthumous commendation from King George VI in 1948 – not bad for a Republican Anarchist.

Similar commemorative work has been done in the Basque Country to mark the Belgian Comete Line which often ended at the Seamen’s Mission in San Sebastian and was run over the Pyrenees by the redoubtable Florentino Giocoechea, also decorated by King George VI. On arrival, evaders where usually handed over to the British Consul in Bilbao and passed via the Embassy in Madrid to Gibraltar and home. The escape lines across the Pyrenees were financed by MI9 and coordinated by Donald Darling, operating variously from Madrid, Barcelona, Lisbon and Gibraltar. 

Today Catalunya is catching up with its historic past. Apart from the Museu de l’Exili, memorials to the Retirada have been placed at the crossing points of Portbou, El Perthus, La Vajol, Costoja, the Col de Ares, and La Tour de Carol. In 2007 the Catalan government placed a plaque in Barcelona’s shrapnel scarred Placa Sant Felip Neri to commemorate the 42 who died, mainly children, during an air raid by the Italian Regia Aeronautica operating out of the Balearic Islands. In total, 2700 civilians died in Barcelona at the hands of the Italian air force, far more than killed by the German Condor Legion at Guernica.  

Churchill said in his “Finest Hour” speech in Parliament on 18 June 1940 “I do not underrate the ordeal which lies before us, but I believe our countrymen will show themselves capable of standing up to it – like the brave people of Barcelona…” Odd that Churchill should have referred to the suffering of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War and not the more recent devastation of Warsaw and Rotterdam.   

Some point to Churchill’s Common’s speech of 24 May 1944, thanking Spain for staying out of the war, as acknowledgement of Franco’s help to the Allies. Spain’s entry into the war on the side of the Axis would certainly have denied the Allies the Mediterranean and threatened supply lines to Africa, South America, India, Australasia and the Far East – a potentially crippling loss. But Churchill’s wide-ranging speech was made just before crucial “D-Day” when Churchill would have been anxious to ensure that all flanks, especially Spain, presented no threat.       

While HM Consul General in Barcelona I shall never forget being challenged at a seminar by a student demanding to know “why did the Allies, who professed to rid Europe from fascism, stop their tanks in the Pyrenees in 1945 and allowed Spain to fester under Franco’s dictatorship for a further thirty years?” An uncomfortable question – the answer was that Spain was neutral and stayed out of WWII. But we should never forget that many unknown Spaniards played their individual part to help the Allied effort and paid the ultimate price – for that we should be grateful. 

This article first appeared as an Anglos Spanish Society article SCW Dec 2012, has been updated by the author who kindly allowed it to be displayed here.