The Anarchist Pimpernel. Francisco Ponzán Vidal (1936 1944). The anarchists in the Spanish Civil War and the Allied Escape Networks of WWII by Antonio Téllez Solá (With the collaboration of Pilar Ponzán Vidal). Translated by Paul Sharkey. (
(Originally published in Spanish in 1996 as: ‘La Red de Evasion del Grupo Ponzán. Anarquistas en la guerra secreta contra el franquismo y el nazismo (1936-1944)’. This e-edition has been translated by Paul Sharkey from Tellez’s subsequently re-written and updated (1997) typescript, which incorporates the memoirs of Pilar Ponzán Vidal (Francisco’s sister) and Tellez’s hitherto unpublished work on Agustín Remiro ‘El Guerrillero Anarquista Agustín Remiro y el Batallón de Ametralladoras “C” (Batallón Remiro)’.
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). (Interestingly, one of those evaders who owed their life to anarchists was the ungrateful psycopath Harold ‘Tanky” Challenor, a Commando during the war, who later joined the Metropolitan Police (West End Central) and famously — and unsuccessfully— attempted to frame anarchist cartoonist Donald Rooum by claiming to have found a piece of brick — ‘an offensive weapon ‘ — in his pocket at a demonstration against the unpopular Greek king and queen during their visit to London in 1963). Other successful — and appreciative — 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.
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’.
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.
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 widely 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 the forest of Buzet-sur-Tarn and murdered in cold blood, their bodies covered with petrol and incinerated.
PS: In 1940, shortly after the Nazi invasion of France, Francisco Ponzán, addressing a meeting in Toulouse of the first resisters (including Dr Soula, the rector of Toulouse university and Dr Rene de Narcis, prefessor at the Catholic Institute and several eminent professors), stated: “It is not the homeland of the French nor their freedom which is in jeopardy: the stakes are Freedom, Culture and World Peace”.