LECLERC’S SPANIARDS by Eduardo Pons Prades (translated by Paul Sharkey)

7Company
Martín Bernal is front row, second from the left

Eduardo Pons Prades, an acknowledged expert on the subject of resistance by Spanish republicans in France, in that he had fought as one of them and published a number of works on his adventures, invoked the Spanish exodus towards the French border at the end of the civil war, the treatment doled out to the Spanish refugees, the outbreak of the Second World War, the part played by Spaniards during the German invasion of France, the beginnings of partisan warfare in an exclusive series of articles for Historia 16. In the fifth instalment – using, as ever, the technique of allowing the protagonists to speak for themselves – he introduces us to the organisation of guerrillas, Spanish recruitment into the regular units of the renascent French army, the Spaniards’ part in the liberation of France and the beginnings of operations by “maquisards” inside Spain. (See also Spanish Republicans in the Liberation of Paris)

Miguel Vera, from La Mancha, was to be the first departmental co-ordinator of Spanish resistance forces which were made up almost entirely of deserters from the GET (the disciplinary Foreign Labour Groups). The son of Spaniards who were economic migrants from Almería, Ricardo Andrés, who was later to be executed by the Germans, acted as liaison with the French resistance: “In spite of everything, there were maverick maquisard groups. For which reason we would do well to stipulate that the moment of truth came when former chasseurs alpins, a unit disbanded following the Franco-German armistice, decided to organise the “Bataillon des Glières” with Captain Tom Morel in charge. I should say that, previously, the chasseurs alpins had already turned over to us the weaponry they held in dumps they had concealed prior to the arrival of the Germans.

This “Bataillon” had the task of climbing the Glières plateau to establish a guerrilla base there that would later turn into an “internal Anti-German front”. But the unfathomable meanderings of General De Gaulle’s politics – first from London and later from Algiers – led to the collapse of that base as well as the Vercors base – in the Lower Alps – and the “Mont-Mouchet” base in the Massif Central and to the annihilation and dispersion of the guerrilla groups based there. Our ‘Ebro’ section formed part of the ‘Bataillon’ in question.

Right from the outset of the big German offensive backed by French fascist militians, everybody quit the plateau howsoever his own experience recommended.”

Every man had a different story to tell. Emilio Álvarez Canosa aka “Pinocho” was another case in point:

“I found myself in the goldmines in Salsigne, having come from the camp in Bram. On a “mission” in Marseilles I was arrested in the Saint-Charles railway station and after the obligatory interrogations in Marseilles and in Montpellier, they moved me to the disciplinary camp in Vernet-les-Bains. I escaped from there with two socialist comrades and off we went to work in the mining district of Provence. Simply in order to get some papers. Dodging a denunciation, I headed for Bordeaux, crossing the Demarcation Line. I crossed back over it a few weeks after that in early 1943 to join up with the Dordogne guerrillas and there I set up my own detachment which specialised in sabotaging trains and railway tracks. At the beginning of 1944, I was appointed commander of Dordogne-North, which position I held until shortly before that zone was liberated (in August-September 1944). I mean up until we reorganised our unit with an eye to its relocating to the Pyrenees to take part in ‘Operation Reconquista’ in Spain.”

In the desert and in Normandy

MapEven though we have been deliberately banished from memory, the war in France was awash with Spanish adventures. Federico Moreno Buenaventura served in Leclerc’s units in Africa and later in Normandy: “After the fabulous desert adventure, the Leclerc column was dispatched to Morocco to rest. It was there, with the formation of the 2nd Free French DB (Armoured Division) that Spanish participation developed on an impressive scale. Our countrymen were flooding in from all over; from the concentration camps in the Sahara – to which Marshal Pétain had banished them – from the Foreign Legion or from the Corps Francs, from which they deserted en masse. These were referred to as “spontaneous transfers”. Many others had been half hidden in Algiers, Oran, Tunis and Casablanca. The influx could be explained in these terms; rumours had been circulating that the landings in Europe were going to touch down on Spanish shores. Had they not shut down the recruitment offices,they could have raised, from among the Spaniards alone, two armoured divisions for Free France. Even though we were quickly issued with American and British materials, we had to wait longer than expected before we could leave our African camps and from April 1944 on, we set sail for England. Two months after that – on 6 June – the Allies landed in Normandy. And, inexplicably, we were left behind in camps in the heart of England. This was due to a few run-ins that General Leclerc had had with his allies during the Tunisian campaign and which he was about to replicate in France and in Germany, for he, just like De Gaulle, reckoned that it should be made very plain – this being the reason why the Free French units had to lead the way – that territories under French rule – or former colonies – were going to be liberated by French units who had to be the first to set foot in towns of any size.

GuadalajaraFinally, on the night of 31 July 1944, it was the turn of Leclerc’s men to set foot on the beaches of Normandy. Whereupon French national pride experienced a resurgence, with another obsession: with being the first into Paris. But if that was to be feasible we were going to have to storm our way there, fighting pretty much “one [engagement] after another”, often setting aside the most elementary rules of classical warfare – such as not overly neglecting the flanks of one’s own troops. But the fact of the matter is that, given the way in which Leclerc – who was a genius and no mistake – intended to advance, nobody had any way of telling where our flanks would be. With the benefit of hindsight, it was a military nonsense and, take it from me, nobody was as delighted with the march on Paris (via the Normandy-to-Paris route) as the Spaniards were. Especially those serving in No 9 Company (”La Nueve”) which, with the exception of its commanding officer, Captain Dronne, was made up entirely of Spaniards. You should have seen the teams manning the armoured vehicles which nearly all bore Spanish names – such as Don Quijote, Madrid, Teruel, Ebro, Jarama, Guernica, Guadalajara, Brunete, Belchite, not to mention the ones called after the three musketeers, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan – as they hurtled down the road, trundling over ramparts, crossing canals and charging across fords. As I say, utter nonsense! And even as the Americans and British were having discussions with De Gaulle, Leclerc gave Dronne his orders : “You know what you are to do: make a bee-line for Paris and to hell with anything else!” And Dronne called all of us section leaders together – Montoya, Granell, Campos and Moreno – and told us what had to be done, no matter the cost.

24AugustaCovering the two hundred kilometres between us and Paris was not a walk in the park for anybody. Operating as irregulars, we foreswore any US-provided aerial cover and the support of our own heavy tanks. Personally, I had to pit my three armoured vehicles against the .88 calibre German guns barring our way. Luck was on our side, to be sure. And so, on 24 August 1944, a Thursday – at around nine in the evening, we drove into the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville in Paris. ‘Don Quijote’, the armoured car commanding my section was the first to station itself there. Over the ensuing hour, the remainder of our armoured vehicles arrived, with Spanish drivers at the wheel, with Spanish names on their flanks and on the front of their vehicles. Which is why what happened twenty five years later went down like such a lead balloon with us. In August 1969, in a report to mark the Liberation of Paris and broadcast on French television, a broadcast that lasted nearly two hours and in which Marshal Leclerc himself even took part … well, not once during the broadcast was the word Spaniard ever mentioned.”

Escape Line

Spanish refugees also worked on heloping other victims of persecution to escape. One such was MHP aka “El Murciano”, who recounts:

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Francisco Ponzan Vidal (1911-1944)

“My clandestine activity started in the French Midi and I specialised almost exclusively in organising groups of people and getting them out to Spain, clandestinely by sea, on behalf of the famous Allied “Pat O’Leary” escape line. It is well known that its last stages – both the landward stage via Toulouse and the maritime route via Sate – were organised and set up by Spanish republican guides. Their top man – we libertarians are loath to use the expression ’leader’ – was a schoolteacher stationed in Huesca province, a man born in Asturias, by the name of Paco Ponzán Vidal. Earlier and on account of my job as a mechanic on board a Greek vessel under Panamanian colours, I had been involved in the escape of a sizable number of Amsterdam diamond-dealers, all Jews, in the autumn of 1940. We had delivered them as far as Lisbon after a stop-over in Casablanca fell through. I still wonder how we managed to leave Holland, cross Belgium and then the northern zone of France which was under German military occupation, cross the Demarcation Line across the whole of the so-called “free” zone and arrive in the port of Sète as if nothing was going on. Along with the Jews and their cars and their respective wives and enormous luggage in tow. And those briefcases of which they refused to let go even to snatch some sleep! Meaning that when it came to persecuting the Jews the Germans were none too quick on the uptake at times. Sailings from Sète had to be interrupted in the spring of 1943 following the arrest of a young Belgian couple who talked too much … I then went to Marseilles and Nice where I orchestrated a few batches. Then, under pressure from our French sponsors who reckoned that I had been “blown”, I was sent to the Austrian capital, returning after a year. Some day we will disclose what we were up to there. By May 1944 I was back in France, in Paris. We Spaniards – the ones from the Leclerc Division as well as civilian personnel – had played our part in the liberation of Paris. And in the weeks thereafter, after a number of exchanges of views with the Paris Regional Committee, we surreptitiously enlisted with the 2nd Armoured Division (DB) for the sole purpose of retrieving light arms dumped by the Germans on the field of battle and shipping them back to Paris so as to arm our comrades to go and fight in Spain. But I will leave comrade Blesa to fill you in on the Leclerc Division adventure.” (See The Anarchist Pimpernel. Francisco Ponzán Vidal)

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Miguel Campos, leader of the ‘La Nueve’s’ Third Section who recruited a ‘secret section’ consisting of Spanish anarchist defectors from the Foreign Legion.. Campos disappeared during a solo mission on 14 December 1944 and was never seen or heard of again.

“I never did work out how Campos, a native of the Canaries, “came by” the armoured vehicle he handed over to us”, says Joaquín Blesa.” We dubbed it “the kangaroo” Armed and in regulation uniform, we – Manolo Ros, Marino, Rosalench, Garca and your humble servant – put it to use. Our task was to stick with the armour from the section commanded by Campos (his adjutant was a Catalan, Bullosa.) When the section was deployed, we then set about gathering up the gear. We had huge burlap sacks into which we placed handguns, submachine-guns, grenades, automatic rifles and indeed machine-guns. lWe would bind them up tight and stash them under the chassis of the armoured car. And, in order to avoid surprises, we always slept in the armoured vehicle, on top of the sacks. And the head of the munitions company – Antonio B. Clarasso, a native of Reus – used to tip us off about the passage of lorries heading back into the rearguard to fetch gear.

As many of the drivers were Spaniards themselves, the shipment of the sacks to Paris always went without a hitch. Sometimes, we used to hide the large sacks in half-demolished houses by the side of the road and our comrades – there were always two of them on the recovery lorry – would pick them up as they passed by. This “traffic” carried on for around eight weeks. Up until Bullosa was killed in action in which we too obviously had to take part also in our “kangaroo”. Campos reckoned that it was now very dangerous to carry on, which is why he used to award us – indefinite – furlough to go to Paris. And he put two rounds from his own tank – the “Ebro” – into the “kangaroo”, thereby giving it some rest and recuperation time too.”

In Hitler’s Refuge

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Sgt-Major Martín Bernal, Captain Dronne, Pirlian (soldier) and Lt. Granell

There were even Spaniards among the very first men to reach Hitler’s summer home. Martín Bernal aka “Garces” recounts:

“I crossed into France in August ’39, after escaping from Porta Coeli prison (in Valencia) together with several Aragonese “country boys”. After eight weeks of marching by night and sleeping by day we reached France. There I was obliged to sign up with the Foreign Legion at a time when the French gendarmes were already escorting me to the border – bound for Senegal – and later I took part in the Tunisian campaign in which I was wounded on 9 May 1943. I was one of the ones who awarded themselves a “spontaneous transfer” to join the Leclerc Division Spaniards. I and Federico Moreno were first of all deputy section leaders and then section leaders. Then I was wounded again, in Alsace. In April 1945 we crossed the Rhine and the invasion of Germany started. My section was one of the ones that were in on Leclerc’s last prank, breaking away from the column proper and then following a “very free itinerary” he had laid down so that we were very nearly the first to reach Berchtesgaden, Fuhrer Adolph Hitler’s summer residence. I say ‘very nearly’ because, along with Moreno’s section, we stumbled into the Germans’ .88 guns in the Inzell defile, very close to our ultimate objective. There was no way for us to go any further unless we first destroyed them. So as we entered that Tyrolean town, we could already see the 2nd DB’s armour which had overtaken us .. it was a bit like the race to Paris. It was plain to see that Leclerc had a cavalry background!

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Sgt.-Major Martín Bernal, 1944

No, I wasn’t one of the first to climb to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. The section that was with Captain Touyères, standing up in his jeep like some medieval knight on his charger, was No 11 section, the one that Moreno commanded. We – No 2 Section – went up after them, to provide them with cover. But the fact is that I was one of the first Spaniards to enter Hitler’s Berghof. And I don’t mind telling you that I felt greatly relieved. It was as if we had suddenly washed away all the insults we Spanish republicans had endured since 1936.”

“Looking to Spain”

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25 August 1944: General Dietrich von Choltitz, military governor of Paris, surrenders to Antonio Gutierrez of La Nueve at the Hotel Meurice.

With the liberation of France (August-September 1944), the reorganisation of Spanish guerrilla forces – about eleven thousand men under arms – got under way and they were concentrated in those departments close to the French-Spanish border. The public resurfacing of the main Spanish political factions in exile – republican, socialist and libertarian – plus the circulation of their watchwords and instructions and, in some cases, ultimatums, led to the disintegration of the communists “Cara a España”(Look to Spain) initiative. And come the so-called Val d’Aran incursion in the autumn of 1944, the guerrilla detachments involved in it did not amount to any more than five thousand men, and that was including roughly a thousand recently recruited youngsters.

9ParisAlongside the communists who made up the bulk of the guerrilla expedition –across the Pyrenees, there was also cooperation from the Negrn-Alvarez Del Vayo faction of the socialists and a group of libertarians who went under the name of the “National Union CNT Group”. A few months after that, with the conclusion of the Second World War (in May 1945), the Spanish republican exiles were faced with a number of options, ranging from returning to Spain (“Exiles will be able to return to their homes without having to worry about complications of any sort” said the official statements in the Francoist press) to emigration to the Latin American countries, not forgetting settlement in European countries, most especially France. Albeit that arrangements in France were still temporary, since a so-called diplomatic offensive had been launched against the Franco regime, under the aegis of the United Nations. And the republican government-in-exile, headed by the republican José Giral, as well as the vast majority of the leftwing Spanish parties and organisations were looking forward to the collapse of the regime established by those who had won the civil war back in the spring of 1939. In the meantime, and definitely since the outbreak of conflict in July 1936, thousands of Spanish men and women, organised into guerrilla teams or acting as their auxiliaries, had been fighting on Spanish soil – in Galicia, in Asturias, in Extremadura, in La Mancha, in Andalusia and especially in Aragon, without the exiles lifting a finger to help them.

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Munich, 30 April 1945: Abenza, Llorden, Bernal and Camon

Madness

In spite of everything, commitment was strong enough to rule out any backing down. M.P.S. aka Chispita says: “No, enthusiasm among the expeditionaries had not slumped unduly before the main forces in the exile community washed their hands of the guerrilla invasion through the Pyrenees. Don’t forget that we had just liberated France. Well, what I mean is that we had been the main liberators in the French Midi. And we thought that nothing could stand in our way. But, essentially, there was no shortage of those – and I was one myself – who were afraid that with the re-emergence of the communists as the central core of the invasion, the chances of our succeeding were going to be reduced. Which was the truth. But we carried on with the “charge”, since we could not see any other way and in many instances out of solidarity with our companions in arms from the difficult years (1941-1944). The moment we entered Spanish territory we realised that the “liberating mission” was not going to be as straightforward as many had imagined it would. Maybe if we had known about the existence of so many local guerrilla groups we would not have been so focused on the border areas.

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Paris, 26 August 1944: Generals De Gaulle and Leclerc reviews the largely Spanish anarchist combatants of ‘La Nueve’ (9th Company of Leclerc’s 2nd Armoured Division).

One “ensconced” in the Maestrazgo [the Aragonese massif] I, like so many other comrades of mine, was forced to weigh up the Val d’Aran invasion and I realised that it had been madcap venture. The common sense thing to do would have been to organise a trickle of infiltrations by smaller groups and to have made contact with the local guerrillas and then move on to establishing urban guerrilla warfare. And, as I subsequently found out, the older groups would have been very thankful for the arrival of expert trainers and for the introduction of a degree of coordination – rather than the out-and-out militarisation that some were out to foist upon them . In fact, the climate of impoverishment and exploitation at the time was encouraging the creation of resistance and combat groups. We have to bear in mind the village money-lenders and the folk involved in black marketeering and the entire set-up that “respectable society” and “the powers-that-be” had devised in order to drive the people to despair. What was not on was asking people to put their heads rashly into the lion’s mouth. And so, as you will be aware, several years were spent on fighting up in the mountains with no great confidence in the future, because it quickly became apparent that the so-called democratic powers were – just as they had been during our civil war – not prepared to bite the bullet and eradicate the last remaining vestiges of European fascism.”

 Eduardo Pon Prades, Historia 16, No 17, pp. 139-143.