Higinio Carrocera Mortera was born in Barros (Langreo) in January 1908, five years after the launch of the ‘La Justicia’ Workers’ Club, an atheneum organised by the workers of the Duro Felguera engineering company. It was here that Carrocera – as with many other libertarians – learned to read. Gijón and La Felguera were the two strongholds of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT in the predominantly socialist (UGT) Asturias. It was in this anarchist setting that Higinio grew up to become a champion of “The Idea” that Ricardo Mella had spread so successfully while in Asturias.
During the Primo de Rivera dictatorship (1923) the young 15-year-old Carrocera began attending workers’ rallies and became involved in labour disputes. By the end of the dictatorship the name of Higinio Carrocera was well-known at public meetings because of his charisma and his organisational abilities.
A great soccer player he finally trading his football club, Barros, for the workers’ struggle and the revolutionary cause. Within a short time of his joining the CNT his family jettisoned its long-held religious beliefs.
1930 saw the formation of anarchist affinity groups, federated with the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI)*. La Felguera was one of the most active centres for FAI militants, being an area which had witnessed much revolutionary activity, more even than Gijón.
In the thick of it was Higinio Carrocera, “eventually radicalised by the persecution and injustice of the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera into one of the most effective exponents of Asturian anarcho-syndicalism”.
Baptism of Fire and Revolution
In 1931, with the monarchy on its last legs, Carrocera and some comrades from La Felguera were involved in a shoot-out with the Civil Guard from Sama. According to his comrade Solano Palacios, there had been a demonstration calling for the release of all political prisoners and as a result of this clash, his “baptism of fire”, Higinio experienced real persecution for the first time. “Between then and his murder he was involved in all the revolutionary strikes in La Felguera, the El Nalón basin and the rest of Asturias” — for which he was constantly harassed and jailed.
In 1932, the Duro-Felguera plant went on strike for nine months, with Carrocera to the fore, always first where the danger was greatest. An advocate of sabotage, he was involved in blowing up power pylons, equipment, locomotives and in mounting attacks on the security forces. In July 1932, a month before the strike ended, Carrocera was arrested and jailed for his part in the stoppage.
Carrocera was a champion of FAI anarchism against the predominantly moderate approach both in Gijon and within the CNT regional committee. Gijón and La Felguera represented two competing factions within the CNT, as would later come to light, when, in the 1934 revolution, the CNT in La Felguera held out against Gijón’s “pro-alliance line” with the UGT.
Whwen the October 1934 revolution erupted, Higinio Carrocera was involved in capturing the Civil Guard barracks in Sama and La Felguera, after which the first armoured lorries set off from the Duro-Felguera works for Oviedo with the initials FAI, CNT and UHP daubed on their sides. Carrocera’s enemies were aware of his prominent role in the Revolution and later used it against him in his 1938 court martial, the minutes of which characterised him as a “very prominent extremist leader of the anarchist persuasion, enjoying solid and sound prestige in proletarian eyes, a mover in strikes and social disturbances and an active revolutionary in October 1934.”
In La Felguera the revolution was successful, and as its revolutionary committee took over — and with no local enemy with which to contend — Carrocera and his group were no longer needed, so they headed for Oviedo to provide reinforcements.
The La Felguera column consisted of 200 anarcho-syndicalists headed by Higinio Carrocera, Onofre García Tirador and Celesto ‘el Topu’. One significant action in which Carrocera was involved was the raid on the Oviedo arms plant and the Carabineer barracks. After seizing the arms plant, 2,000 rifles were taken to La Felguera along with twelve machine-guns that were later deployed against the Francoist insurgents in July 1936.
After the Revolution was crushed, Carrocera fled to Zaragoza, intending to cross into France, but was arrested there on 8 August 1933 on a charge of “military rebellion”. As the monarchist ABC newspaper spelled out to its readers, the detainee “Higinio Carrocera, operated in Asturias, or so the word is, as a revolutionary chieftain and signatory to a number of declarations. He is regarded as a dangerous dynamiter.”
Jailed in Gijón and Oviedo, he remained in prison up until the Popular Front election victory on16 February 1936 when an amnesty — a core part of the Popular Front programme — was granted to all those sentenced for political or social offences.
The Hero of El Mazucu
In the days leading up to the army revolt, Carrocera and his comrades in La Felguera were still recovering from their tough times in prison, and from the repression; this time the call was to rise up in defiance of fascism. Carrocera was raising funds for the families of political prisoners. As his cousin Ángel Cases explains, he cycled around “touring the towns in both basins raising money on behalf of Red Aid”. Along with his CNT and FAI comrades, Carrocera employed the same strategy used in the October 1934 revolution; they launched a pre-emptive attack on the barracks in La Felguera.
As in 1934, La Felguera quickly fell to the CNT-FAI revolutionaries, allowing Carrocera and his comrades to help tackle the rebel Simancas and Zapadores army barracks. From that point on his La Felguera column became a dauntless militia operating on every front, and with a growing personal reputation. He was responsible for blowing up of the bridge across the Nalón between Muros and Soto, a move that halted the advance of the Francoists on the western flank.
In Simancas, Higinio led the assault with a squad of La Felguera dynamiters. His élan proved crucial in overrunning the rebel barracks. The La Felguera anarchist also averted a massacre. As journalist Ceferino de Blas explains: “Higinio Carrocera, having climbed on top of a wall, shouted as loud as he could that there was to be no more killing. His warnings were heeded as he reminded the attack party that there were two republican-minded captains inside the barracks and some NCOs being held in the Simancas barracks to be rescued. Thanks to that, there was no widespread slaughter.”
Fellow CNT comrade and member of the Asturias Defence Committee, Avelino G Entrialgo, stated: “With antifascism triumphant in Gijón, Carrocera reorganised his forces in La Felguera”. As others set about bureaucratic tasks and looking after the rearguard, Higinio craved action. He wanted to be in the thick of the fighting, where he felt useful. After the capture of the barracks in Gijón, in which he had been actively involved, his record as a militiaman took a heroic course. He saw action in Malleza, Mallecina, Monte de los Pinos, Salas, Cornellana, the Grado Pass, Pravia, Cudillero, Belmonte … But above all, he was fully aware of his capabilities as a fighter. His experience in the 1934 revolution and in the civil war gave him confidence in his innate military capabilities. His cousin Ángel Cases says that Higinio never conceded an inch, nor would allow anybody else to give ground. That there was more to him than a militiaman; he was brave and intelligent and invested with an extraordinary capacity for resisting an armed enemy in any setting.
In September 1937, by then renowned for his courage and ability, he was entrusted with his most dangerous mission so far — to halt the Navarrese Brigades pouring in from the east at the El Cuera Sierra and El Mazucu. At the time, Higinio was serving with the 60th Division, commanded by the CNT’s own Víctor Álvarez, a division that consisted of the 192nd, 193rd and 194th brigades with Carrocera in command of the 192nd with the rank of Militia Major.
This proved to be a feat of Numantine resistance. By this time the republican army was cut off and its numbers constantly dwindling. This was the opening of one of the most heroic chapters in the story of the Northern front, one in which Carrocera was a major player.
The Francoist forces comprised upwards of 33,000 men backed up by planes operating without hindrance from the Llanes aerodrome. Also, there was the Condor Legion of Heinkel 46 fighter-bombers, known popularly as pea-hens, based at the Virgen del Camino airfield in León. Facing them were republican troops who at no point numbered more than 6,000, and who for 15 tough days held off this mighty war machine and delayed the collapse of the Northern front.
Resistance was impossible, however, and little by little they were forced back to Cangas de Onís. On 3 October 1936 the Medal of Freedom was awarded to Major Higinio Carrocera Mortera “in recognition of the merit of an officer who has managed, in difficult circumstances, to sustain his brigade’s spirits, making feasible the magnificent work achieved on the eastern front of Asturias”. Carrocera did not turn up to receive his medal. Informed by phone of his award his reply was that medals “are in the trenches”. He was then ordered to redeploy in La Manjoya in Oviedo, which is where he was on 20 October when he was told that the war in the North was over. It was a rout. Colonel Franco, who had been in charge of the Trubia factory, warned him to look to his own safety, but Carrocera refused to board a ship unless all his men were safe.
One of the last to leave from El Musel he did so on board a vessel, the Llodio, carrying steel, but it was intercepted by Italian warships which, posing as Spanish ships, infested the Cantabrian Sea. He was moved from Muros de Noya (La Coruña) to the Romaní concentration camp, under a false identity (posing as one Vidal Fernández), although he was quickly betrayed and shipped to Oviedo.
One of the strangest episodes in his life took place in Oviedo. So widespread were tales of his courage and military talents that his enemies even invited him to come over to their side. No less a figure than Queipo de Llano had highlighted Carrocera’s courage in his radio broadcasts. Asturias’s military governor, General Latorre, initially had hopes of coming to some arrangement with Carrocera. Quijano reports that when such hopes were dashed “he flew into a range and with a great flourish ordered the prisoner removed from his presence.”
“I die for Freedom”
At which point Carrocera’s Calvary began. In just 18 days, with evidence from five witnesses, supporters of the winning fascist side or who had lost family members to the actions of militians, plus four affidavits and reports from the Civil Guard, a report from the FET y de las JONs (Falange), and two statements by the accused in his own defence, the matter was referred to a Council of War. Except for the statements from the accused, the rest went against him and included some serious and unfounded accusations.
There was a rumour at the time that some people from Oviedo had lobbied for a pardon for Carrocera. Higinio himself picked up on these petitions (from his prison cell) and in his own handwriting wrote to his friend Margarita about the possibility of a pardon: “From what you tell me Sofia said to you, I can tell you that word has reached here too and I am informed that they speak very well of me in Oviedo. But there is a huge difference between that and my being pardoned.”
When informed of his sentence he wrote to his comrades to tell them: “As you know, the Council of War has convened. They have handed me down La Filomena (the death sentence), but no matter. I am content because dying for a just and noble cause such as the one we champion is a source of pride for me.”
On 8 May 1937, shortly before he was moved to the cemetery for execution, four gold fillings were removed from his teeth — using a spoon — for forwarding to his mother, by then safe in Catalonia. He also hurriedly scribbled a dedication and the date of his death on the snapshot of his niece Olga: “I die for Freedom”.
30 out of a total of 259 prisoners whose executions were strung out over days were executed in the cemetery that day.
According to certain witnesses, before the shots that ended his life were fired, Carrocera addressed the soldiers mingling with the Civil Guards that made up the firing squad. He forgave them for the crime they were about to commit and said their officers were wholly to blame. “Maybe some day you will have to train your rifles on them. Long live the CNT!” he shouted just moments before his voice was stilled forever.
Article published by Fernando Romero in Atlantica XXII. Translated by Paul Sharkey.
For further reading, see Fernando Romero, Higinio Carrocera. La lucha de un anarquista (Madrid, FAL 2015) pp. 288, 15 euro
* See ‘We, the anarchists’