The Anarchist Pimpernel (b. Oviedo, 1911- d. Buzet sur Tarn, 17 August 1944)

Francisco Ponzán Vidal, The Anarchist Pimpernel (b. Oviedo, 1911- d. Buzet sur Tarn, 17 August 1944)

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Around 6:30 pm on 17 August 1944 a number of trucks carrying some 50 prisoners left Saint-Michel prison in Toulouse heading northwest along the Albi road. Half an hour or so later, people living on the outskirts of the village of Buzet-sur-Tarn (Haute Garonne) saw a caravan of German military vehicles with an accompanying Gestapo touring car turn off the road and drive up a track into a wood. Shortly afterwards they heard shouts and the sounds of automatic gunfire and rifle shots coming from the woods. The shooting continued for 45 minutes. Some time later the vehicles emerged and returned in the direction of Toulouse. Two days later, informed by local residents, the authorities from Buzet-sur-Tarn visited the woods where they discovered the site of a chilling massacre. Beneath a still smouldering funeral pyre — and the debris of two burned-out barns, of which only smoke-blackened side walls bearing the pockmarks of bullets remained standing — they found what the carbonized remains of the 50 prisoners, all members of the Resistance. Among the blackened corpses was that of Francisco Ponzán Vidal, a lifelong Spanish anarchist and CNT union militant, one of countless unsung heroes of the Spanish Civil War and the anti-Francoist and anti-Nazi/Vichy resistance.

Founder and organiser of the escape and evasion lines used by the ‘Pat O’Leary’ and ‘Sabot’ networks, the French security services (Travaux Ruraux), and local French Resistance organisations, from 1940 to 1943, Francisco Ponzán Vidal’s group, consisting mainly of Spanish anarchist exiles, saved the lives of hundreds if not thousands of resistance fighters, evadees and escaped prisoners of war. Between January 1942 and April 1943 (when he was arrested by the Vichy milice), Ponzán’s records, consisting of two notebooks, list the names, dates and some photographs of 311 Allied evaders who successfully escaped to Spain and Gibraltar through his network. The names in the books include those of Lt. Airey Neave (the later MI9 officer and Thatcherite Tory MP), and RAF sergeant John Prendergast (later Sir John, colonial police chief — Kenya, Cyprus and Aden — and head of the Royal Hong Kong Police Special Branch). Among other successful evaders Ponzán’s anarchist network helped to make it back to Britain included Bill Sparks (my wife’s cousin’s brother) and major ‘Blondie’ Hasler, the sole survivors of ‘Operation Frankton’, the ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ Royal Marine commando raid on German ships in Bordeaux harbour.

Francisco Ponzán Vidal

The young (and myopic) Ponzán’s first run-in with the authorities occurred in the aftermath of the Jaca (Aragón) uprising of December 1930 when he was arrested and detained for a few days. In 1932 he was imprisoned again, this time for two months, during a general strike, and also in April, July and December 1933, following that month’s CNT-led insurrection.

The 1936 military-fascist uprising found him teaching in Huesca, and in October that year, at the height of the Spanish Revolution, he represented the Angües Regional Committee at the General Assembly of Trade Unions at Bujaraloz, which led to the formation of the Economic and Regional Defence Council of Aragón, probably the most genuinely libertarian administration of the Spanish Revolution. Ponzán served for 7 months as the Council of Aragon’s sub-secretary for Information and Propaganda, that is until the Council and its collectives were suppressed by General Enrique Lister’s 11th Division (on the orders of republican Prime Minister Juan Negrín). Subsequently Ponzán enlisted in the ‘Rojinegra’ militia column led by his friend and comrade Maximo Franco, under whose aegis he organised and led a behind-the-lines intelligence/sabotage guerrilla unit known as ‘Los Libertadores’.

Flag of the Regional Defence Council of Aragón (also known as the Council of Aragón)

In the autumn of 1937 Ponzán was promoted to captain and co-opted into the SIEP (Servicio de Información Especial Periférica), the special services/military intelligence unit of the Xth Army Corps in the now fully militarised republican Army of the East, a post in which he remained until forced into exile at the end of the war.

With Franco’s victory imminent, Ponzán arrived in France, via Andorra, in February 1939, where he established a number of arms caches before being arrested and interned in the La Vernet concentration camp. Assigned to work for a local anti-fascist farmer by the name of M. Benazet, he immediately began building and consolidating an anarchist anti-Francoist resistance network throughout the Eastern Pyrenees. His reputation and standing among local anti-fascists soon brought him to the attention of the local British SIS (MI6) officer, ‘Major Marshall’, who, in November 1939, recruited Ponzán and his group to organise a ‘stay-behind’ operation in preparation for the expected arrival of the Wehrmacht. SIS operations in the Eastern Pyrenees at the time were based in the town of Foix, in the Ariège, and were coordinated by Major Marshall, Commander Hinman, and a Captain Philips. According to the French RG (Renseignements Généraux — security service) Ponzán’s group, all members of the CNT-FAI, included captains José Estevez Coll. Pedro Marcos Bilbao, a Spanish Merchant Marine officer, José Villa Briga Abizando, Antonio Castreo de la Torre, Onofre García Tirador, Juan Manuel (‘Juanel‘), Agustín Remiro, Saturnino Carod and Francisco Denís, ‘El Català’, Juan Zafón, Pascual and Eusebio López Lagarta, Vicente Moriones, Amádeo Casares, Rafael Melendo, Ricardo Rebola, Ginés Camarasa, Victorio Castán, Coteno, among others.

A few of the Grupo Ponzan: l-r – Pascual López Lagarta, ‘El Navarro’, Agustín Remiro, Ponzán and ‘El Mañico’

When the Germans finally invaded France in May 1940, ‘Major Marshall’, drawing on his CNT-FAI contacts cultivated over the years between the First World War and the Spanish Civil War, began liaising with Leonard Hamilton Stokes, the recently appointed SIS head of station in Madrid — and his deputy, Kenneth Benton — to fund communication lines and a resistance organisation (Ponzán’s) in anticipation of the expected German invasion of Spain and Portugal. Earlier that month Ponzán had been wounded during a raid into Spain to spring comrades, including Manuel Lozano Guillén (a commissar with the 127th Mixed Brigade of the 28th Division), from the Belver de Cinca concentration camp. Fortunately, his injuries were not serious and he was soon ready for action against the advancing German armies.

In April 1943 the Vichy milice arrested Ponzán for possessing false ID papers and sentenced him to 8 months imprisonment. His role in the resistance, however, was not known until June 1944 when, shortly before the due date for his release, he was betrayed.  The same morning the Allies began landing in Normandy the Gestapo moved him to the Saint-Michel maximum-security prison in Toulouse where he remained for three months, subject to who knows what tortures, until that fateful evening of 17 August — just two days before the Resistance liberated Toulouse — when he and around 50 other fellow Resistance fighters (the exact number is unknown) were taken by Wehrmacht troops to Buzet-sur-Tarn and murdered in cold blood, their bodies covered with petrol and incinerated.

Memorial plaque to Ponzán in Buzet cemetery

After the Liberation Ponzán received posthumous commendations from Prime Minister Clement Atlee, General Eisenhower, Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur W Tedder (Deputy Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force) and General De Gaulle who awarded him the Medal of the Resistance, the Croix de Guerre with Palm, and promoted him, posthumously, to the rank of captain in the French army — a position that would have had the anarchist anti-militarist revolving in his grave. He and his comrades have remained largely hidden from history ever since.