- Friction with the AGE: the Case of the Basques
- Friction with the UNE: the Libertad Battalion case – Ravanel – FFI (French Forces of the Interior)
- The Libertad Battalion: a Brand-New Scenario
- The Libertad Battalion and the Libertarian Movement – The Libertad Battalion and the Libertarian Press – The Libertad Battalion: Question Marks
- The Enigma of Santos, the Libertad Battalion’s comandante
- FRICTION WITH THE AGE: THE CASE OF THE BASQUES
A malaise staked Ordoki’sa agrupacion towards the end of 1944. The reason for this was the attempt by Victorio Vicuña and the AGE to turn them into small guerrilla teams for smuggling into Francoist territory for the purpose of using them in guerrilla operations in the corniche of Cantabria.
Members of the Basque brigade were haunted by the spectacular failure of the UNE’s anti-Francoist tactics; in October that year the UNE had used the Agrupación de Guerrilleros to launch a massive offensive – Operacion Reconquista – in the Pyrenees. Thousands of fighters entered Spain via the Aran Valley, intent upon liberating that area and establishing a bridge-head for use in first incursions. Initially caught by surprise, the Francoist troops launched a furious counter-attack, abetted by their superior numbers and equipment. The deployment of the military stemmed the guerrilla invasion and – faced with the possibility of being encircled – the guerrilla units were forced to withdraw after a few days, leaving dead and prisoners behind in the wake of their abortive attack.
Given that outcome, the members of the Gernika unit were plainly distrustful of Vicuna’s strategy vis à vis future operations in Basque-Spanish territory. The battalion’s members – made up of a majority of PNV nationalists, republicans, socialists and the odd CNT member – labelled the plan to infiltrate small fighting units into hostile territory to engage an enemy as extremely harsh as the Francoist army and the Civil Guard as suicidal; likewise, the planned operation were not to the liking of lehendakari Juan Antonio Aguirre (1904-1960), ensconced in exile in the USA.
During that malaise, comandante Ordoki was contacted by an envoy from the Basque nationalist authorities – some sources say that this was councillor Eliodoro De la Torre (1884-1946), one of the founders of the ELA-STV (Eusko Langileen Alkartasuna/ Solidaridad de los Trabajadores Vascos) trade union and himself a member of the PNV – who put it to him that he should cut his ties with the pro-communist UNE’s guerrilla organization and join he Basque brigade within the French army whilst retaining his autonomy and commanders. This switch was already under negotiation with the new French military authorities established tenuously in the wake of the German retreat.
Deep down, what the Basque authorities in exile were after was a role alongside French and volunteer troops in the remaining campaign against a teetering Germany which was in its death throes by the autumn of 1944. In order to secure their collaboration with the remainder of the Allies, some moves had been made over the preceding years on the part both of Manuel de Irujo’s (1891-1981) London-based Basque National Council and – later – by the New York-based Basque government led by Aguirre. So the US government reaped the benefits of the Basque spy network in Latin America and of the Basque Intelligence Agency (SVI) set up by Aguirre during the Spanish Civil War and still operational during the world war. And let us not forget the Basque involvement with the Comet Network, helping fugitives from the Nazis who had traipsed across occupied Europe to get over the border into Spain.
The appearance in the last of the fighting for France’s liberation of an unmistakably Basque military unit – in addition to the aforementioned espionage efforts and other maters outside of the remit of this study – were excellent instances of how the Basque exile community helped the Allied war effort. And the hope was that this active effort might be acknowledged so that they could share in the fruits of victory.
Against this backdrop, the aim was that the group wrested away from the communist orbit might form the kernel of the future forces of public order within Euskadi should the Allies invade the Iberian peninsula, thereby underpinning the power of the Basque government and policing in the wake of the overthrow of Francoist structures. The need to be able to call upon a paramilitary force was a sine qua non for the re-structuring of European nation-states which was expected once the war was over. In La lucha antifranquista de posguerra: e caso de los “commandos” vascos, Miguel Jose Rodriguez Alvarez offers this explanation: “It needs to be placed on record that in contemporary law, international recognition of a government requires that there be an executive authority plus an armed force to ensure public order.”
As far as Aguirre was concerned, being able to call upon Ordoki’s battalion was an important part of his political strategy. With the PNV’s hegemony within the government in exile and this fighting unit at its command once it had quit the UNE, he meant to make his move and assert a brand new sovereignty in the Europe that would emerge from the world war as he waited for the restoration of democracy in Spain bringing with it self-government for the Basque Country. Subsequent history tells us that his hope was in vain as the Allies did not topple the dictator Franco who remained in power for decades thereafter. But back in 1944 it was a possibility to be considered, so the battalion under Ordoki’s command, based near the French-Spanish border , slipped away from the AGE’s guerrilla bases, to the surprise and outrage of the Spanish communist leadership.
Rodriguez Alvarez recounts these circumstances in a contribution to the review Historia y Vida No 351 (June 1997), entitled “The Basques in the Second World War Remembering the Gernika Battalion”. He tells us that the final break “… came in Sauveterre-de-Béarn (in the present department of Pyrénées-Orientales) in the winter of 1944. The men were anxiously awaiting the outcome of talks Ordoki was having with several high-ranking UNE officers. The comandante addressed the Battalion and told the, that anyone wanting to join an autonomous unit should take a step to the front. Eighteen men failed to budge … The 150 men who had followed the comandante were transferred. They were ferried away by train the very same night through ghostly snow-covered countryside, to the outskirts of Bordeaux, to avoid reprisals.”
The same author mentions the fury of the commander of the AGE’s 10th Brigade in the Basses-Pyrenees, Victorio Vicuña, who looked upon the withdrawal of the Gernika Battalion guerrillas “as desertion in the face of the enemy” as he “was counting on those men to launch a war on a wide scale in northern Navarra and Guipúzcoa”. The communist leader made vigorous protests in Bordeaux to Colonel Druilhe – commander of the French 18th Military Region – and commanders Ordoki and Santos (as the latter’s anarchist unit had also slipped out of the control of the UNE). He failed in his purpose, however, as both groups eventually joined the French forces.
Billeted in January 1945 in a French army camp in Le Bouscat – on the outskirts of liberated Bordeaux (Gironde) – it was incorporated into the French army the following month and the members of the Gernika were issued with papers as FFI soldiers.
Although the battalion was disbanded at the end of that year, there were some benefits they reaped – during the unit’s brief existence – from their having become regular troops: a detachment was formed to ensure liaison with the French officer corps, they were issued with more weapons and with fresh uniforms as – Rodriguez Alvarez indicates – they were now “part of the French army and there was an improvement in their equipment. They were dressed in baggy green trousers and blue jerkins (with the ikurriña stitched onto one sleeve), a mixture of the two uniforms worn by the Vichy Milice”, which had been captured by the liberation forces.
But – again according to Rodriguez Alvarez – it looks as if reprisals by their former comrades in arms continued for a time, as UNE members harried them at gunpoint and set fire to one of their lorries when they were mounting watch in the Bordeaux area.With time, the situation normalized, due, maybe, to the preparations being made for the attack on Festung Gironde. They were relocated to the Macau camp, on the battle-front, only to be transferred later to the western sector of the Medoc peninsula, on the Medoc’s Atlantic coast.
- FRICTIONS WITH THE UNE: THE BATTALION LIBERTAD CASE
The libertarian group too had rejected attempts to absorb them into the UNE as they were repulsed by the authoritarian structures divided by the PCE. Moreover, the hostility of the Spanish party’s and French CP’s leaders towards the Libertad’s guerrillas was common knowledge since the Libertad had armed the CNT personnel who set up shop in the Bourse du Travail following the liberation of Toulouse. The CNT personnel used those weapons to defend those premises – the seat of the French unions and home to an employment agency they ran – when they were threatened with eviction by Stalinist groups under the orders of a French military officer (Serge Asher aka Ravanel). Also, members of the libertarian unit protected meetings of the socialist Union General de Trabajadores (UGT), the reconstruction of which the Unión Nacional was bent on thwarting.
The squalid witch-hunt launched within republican Spain by the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) continued to claim victims in a France liberated from the Nazi yoke and the fact that one (or some sources say two) officer with the anarchist unit had – together with Wilebaldo Solano and members of the Resistance – been involved in the risky rescue of another POUM leader, Juan Andrade (1898-1978), being held by the communist guerrillas in Bergerac prison (Dordogne department) did nothing to smooth things over.
This up-down tension did not stop the anarchist guerrillas from carrying on with their harrying of the enemy, in some instances in concerted operations with UNE groups. Solano recounts how the battalion, launched at the beginning of August 1944, established its base in liberated Villeneuve-sur-Lot and “before long was operational and abiding by orders from the sector command: raiding petrol stations, sabotaging rail lines, mounting operations with the UNE and other groups in order to liberate Tonneis, Fauillet and Agen” (three towns in Lot-et-Garonne).
“The support from the peasants was at all times exemplary, especially they found out that we were Spaniards. The welcome received from the people of Agen on the day of the victory parade through the town bore witness to solidarity with the Spaniards who were fighting to liberate France.”
Once Fauillet had been liberated, the battalion was posted there at the beginning of Sep[tember and Santos seized this opportunity to keep in contact with libertarian resiusters from other nearby towns, such as Fumel (where there was a CNT group in one important factory) and Toulouse (Haute Garonne department) where the CNT was getting itself reorganized following the liberation of the town in August 1944.
RAVANEL – FFI (FRENCH FORCES OF THE INTERIOR)
The comandante of the libertarian battalion and his Trotskyist mentor paid a visit to the liberated town: “It was immediately apparent to us that the CP … was in the driving seat thanks to the UNE bamboozlement, and that the CNT, the PSOE and the POUM faced great difficulties in carrying out their reconstruction and organizational tasks”, as – with the aim of preventing the raising of guerrillas by other political factions and of breaking up those already in existence – the leaders of the Spanish and French CPs ensured that in August 1944 the French authorities passed a decree – subsequently rescinded – under which the UNE’s Agrupacion Guerrillera alone was recognized as part of the FFRI (French Forces of the Interior), sidelining other groups of Spanish fighters who were not members of the AGE; the latter were enjoined the join the communist resistance or face being disarmed and demobbed.
Solano names some of those guerrilla groups and their varying ideologies … “there was the Libertad Battalion in Lot-et-Garonne, comandante Ordoki’s Basque Brigade, the group of the anarchists Casto Ballesta and Jose Vargas, Francisco Valero’s POUMist group in the Limoges area, the ‘Perroquet’ group, made up exclusively of Spanish CNT personnel …”
Solano’s diffidence showed itself once more when they reported to the city authorities. Among the latter was Ravanel, the top resistance chief in the region. The Trotskyist politician (who gets his nationality wrong) linked him with the publication of the decree which “… came out after the Libertad Battalion had been formed and at a time when a very special individual by the name of Ravanel but who was in actual fact the Czechoslovak Serge Asher ruled the roost in Toulouse. The fact is that he made himself the supreme politico-military commander issuing orders to the guerrilla groups and indeed to the prefect … appointed by the De Gaulle government o the liberation of Toulouse.”
Serge Asher (1920-2009) aka Ravanel, was a war hero and regarded in his homeland as one of the grea resistance figures. Although he died a few years ago, he is remembered for having dedicated his life to bearing witness to the values tha guided the guerrillas who took on Nazism.
Such recognition places him on a par with another legendary resister, Jean Moulin (1899-1943) whom Ravanel tried to free when he was being held by the Gestapo in Caluire (Lyon) in June 1943, although the operation had to be called off due to lack of time when Moulin was transferred to Paris – where he was savagey tortured by the Gestapo before falling into a coma – and he died with days after removal to Berlin by train. On the other hand, he pulled off another daring move when another resister Raymond Samuel aka Raymond Aubrac (1914-2012) was freed in an attack in the heart of Lyon (in SE France) on the Gestapo van in which he was being transported.
Parisian-born of a Czechoslovak mother, Serge Ravanel joined the resistance in 1941 by helping on the banned review Temps nouveaux. In December that year he launched his own network and by June the following year had joined the Libération-Sud resistance movement. Shortly after that, he was arrested in Marseilles, but his dare-devil nature helped him to escape.
He also managed to wriggle out of two more arrests I 1943, in which year the leadership of the MUR – United Resistance Movement (an amalgamation of the three main groups in the southern zone – Combat, Franc-Tireur and Libération – the armed wing of which was the Secret Army) appointed him national head of the partisan groups, his mission being to set up, encourage and expand these groups nationwide.
In 1944, it was proposed that one person be put in charge of the Resistance in the Toulouse area, but no candidate was forthcoming who could command the unanimous backing of the various fighting forces, and so Ravanel volunteered to take up that post, on a temporary basis. His candidacy was supported and on 6 June, General Koening – head of the FFI – promoted him to colonel. At the age of just 24, he now had 20,000 personnel under his command, including those from the Spanish communist units based in the Pyreneean Zone around the Toulouse area; they accepted the colonel’s orders, passed on through the commander of the 1st Guerrilla Division, another colonel, Garcia Acevedo.
Following the Allied landings on Provence on 15 August 1944, the German troops holding out in the Toulouse region started to withdraw, harried by the actions of guerrillas. Ravanel was one of the people coordinating those actions and he took part in the liberation of the city (19 August 1944).
Some months before, this leading French Resistance figure had orchestrated an attempt to break prisoners out of Eysses prison, something of which Solano – who had been a prisoner there – was unaware. In an interview published in the newspaper Express in March 1959, Ravanel himself spoke of the inmates’ efforts to make contact with the guerrillas on the outside with a view to the final uprising, which (as outlined in an earlier chapter) ended in tragedy “… in Lot-et-Garonne there was a notorious prison, the Eysses centre, where hundreds of resisters were being held. In December 1943 the decision was made to mount a mass escape bid. Partisan groups that would be drawn in from far-off departments, especially from Lyon, were to take part.”
“In concert with those in charge inside the prison, escape was arranged for one prisoner upon whom we were relying to establish an effective connection between our partisan groups and the inmates. I put this person, whom we called Tanger (although he also answered to Kléber) in touch with the leader of the Toulouse partisan groups, Joyeux-Joly, who saw to it that an arms dumps was handed over to him … All of the details of the operation had been sorted out and it was just a matter of awaiting implementation … which never came. I found out the reason why in late January 1944. On learning that Tanger was a communist, Joyeux-Joly refused to hand over the promised weaponry. Tanger had then lost confidence in our determination to go through with the planned operation and broke off contact.
Some weeks after that, the Eysses detainees tried a mass escape. But they had no assistance from outside and they lacked weapons. Failure was followed by ferocious repression and numerous resisters were shot.”
For his part, Solano in his memoir lets us in on some – just a few – of the details of the meeting that took place with the young officer in Toulouse:
“We presented ourselves before the civilian and military authorities and even managed to speak for the first time with Ravanel who appeared to be in charge of everything. He was to the point, ordered that we be issued with petrol coupons and asked us if we had any supply problems
As we were leaving, comandante Santos expressed pleasure at how we had been received. But on the second occasion when he saw Ravanel he realized straight off that something was different as the latter insisted that the most logical course was for the Libertad Battalion to be attached to the Spanish Guerrillas Agrupacion … To which Santos replied that that that was nonsense and when he told me about he said: Now I understand your reservations and your fears … A third meeting with Ravanel, which I refused to attend despite Santos’s insistence was never held. In a further display of arrogance, Ravanel refused to see the Libertad Battalion’s military commander.”
Map: The geographical areas into which the Resistance in mainland France was divided. In the south, the Pyrenean departments. Colonel Garcia Acevedo’s 1st Guerrilla Division operated in Zone R4 – under Ravanel’s command. The 4th Spanish Guerrilla Division was in R3, under the control of Colonel Carrel
The pressures were stepped up, peaking in the third week of September 1944 when Ravanel put a written threat to the battalion’s commander:
“If your group fails to join the Spanish guerrilla organization officially recognized by the authorities, meaning the UNE and its Guerrillas military agency, we shall implement the following steps. From 1 October onwards, you are to receive no further financial or material assistance. As of the same date, you are to surrender your arms and whatever equipment you currently possess to the FFI commander in the Lot-et-Garonne.”
It should be pointed out that this reaction from Serge Asher was shaped by pressurs brought to bear by the AGE units operating in the territory under his command which were doing all thy could “to ensure that Spanish political and trade union organizations wee not able to organize and have a public profile, except for the Spanish Communist Party and the Spanish National Union (UNE)”, the heads of which (and the French communist leadership) had endorsed Ravanel as chief of the FFI in Toulouse and district (Zone R4 of the resistance’s geographical organization in France). And the fraternization did not end there, as the 1st Spanish Guerrilla Division was one of the mainstays of the liberation of the region, its activities being coordinated with other groups.
Such links as these between Serge Asher and the pro-communist guerrillas came at a price for the young colonel. He was identified by the Gaullist intelligence agencies as a puppet of the French Communist Party, and De Gaulle himself was not happy with the political situation created in Toulouse following the Liberation, being uneasy about the massive presence of leftist personnel in the city and fearful of the prospect of the establishment of a red republic in the area. He was outspoken about his distaste when he visited the Occitanian city in September 1944, as he was blunt with the local resistance leaders – especially Ravanel – accusing them of having taken regrettable actions.
Photo: Ravanel (left) with De Gaulle (right) in Toulouse in September 1944
- THE LIBERTAD BATTALION: A BRAND-NEW SCENARIO
Despite the threats from Ravanel – and the communist clique surrounding him – the popularity of the anarchist unit prevented reprisals from being mounted against it (“every day brought more Spaniards coming to enlist and our Medical Service received lots of visits from the peasants in the area”) although – as Solano points out – “… we ensconced ourselves as best we could in Fauillet, briefed the Resistance bodies on what was happening and said that if need be we would defend ourselves with what weapons we had. No one dared attack us …”
But since repeated pressures coming from the communist military commanders were making clashes more likely, the rebellious anarchists finally chose to leave the PCE guerrilla organization’s sphere of influence and lobbied for the battalion to be added to the French military forces that were regrouping in the Bordeaux area.
Before that switch could be made, the matter was put to the Lot-et-Garonne Liberation Committee, which gave the go-ahead. Similarly, the application for entry was accepted by the military authorities which were fighting for control of the Medoc area and immersed in the raising of a mighty army once much of the Gironde department had been liberated. The Libertad was posted to a front near Bordeaux (to Le Bouscat, as was the Gernika Battalion) where the UNE had a weak presence. There, in huts abandoned by the German army, the Libertad Battalion was installed as it embarked upon a fresh phase as a French army military unit, as it started its march towards the fortifications in the far north of the Medoc peninsula.
- THE LIBERTAD BATTALION AND THE LIBERTARIAN MOVEMENT
Despite the Libertad Battalion’s conversion into a regular unit of the brand new French armed forces, there is no question as to its being linked with the CNT (which was reorganizing in the wake of the German retreat) with which it had firm solidarity connections during the liberation process in France, during which time an abrasive competition erupted between the anti-Francoist exile organizations.
Harking back to the book El exilio republicano español en Toulouse, 1939-1999, we find that
“… The Spanish Unión Nacional (UNE), spawned by the PCE and created in 1941 and which enjoyed hegemony within the Resistance, with ties to communist-minded commands, was to try to silence the rest of the republican exile community, essentially the libertarians and the socialists. Whereupon sometimes very violent situations were generated, bullying and including physical eliminations, particularly in Toulouse … With an eye to bringing such attacks to an end, the CNT, gathered in a National Plenum, dispatched a letter to the Communist Party, on the basis that the latter was the real power behind the UNE. The attacks ended.”
In the city – known to the Spaniards as Tolosa – it was well known that there was a Spanish exile presence, a presence of anarcho-syndicalists in particular, with their organizations tolerated due to the assistance they had rendered in the liberation of the country, albeit kept under close surveillance by the Gaullists.
The book to which we refer cites as one example of such indulgence the authority granted for the March 1945 demonstration held against the establishment of a Francoist consulate in the area, a protest with a significant libertarian presence among its 25,000 participants. It also offers one detail about the strong CNT foothold in the city and its environs “… during the first few months of 1945, a CNT delegation could be found at the Bourse du Travail, together with the largest French trade union, the CGT, in the Man-power Bureau.”
The Libertad Battalion’s determined action in the Bourse du Travail incident mentioned earlier, when weapons were distributed to CNT personnel under threat in Toulouse, was a success, as the building continued to be used by the CNT over subsequent decades. In fact, much of the CNT’s life in the city went on there, on premises “…placed at the disposal of the Bourse du Travail … the centre of such activities, plus a second premises, a place to meet and trade views on anything”, the same source mentions. Inside the Bourse building … “there were arts groups operating during weekday, and night classes were offered … The courses on offer were indicative of real eclecticism. For instance, there were classes in Esperanto still on offer in 1966.” In his book Contribución a la historia de la CNT de España en el exilio (Mexico 1967), Jose Berruezo Silvente (1895-1990) tells of how important the anarchist battalion was to the Confederation. He speaks of a circular dated 9 February 1945 issued by the National Committee of the CNT in France (Toulouse) informing its regional, departmental, local committees and membership of the existence of a compromise also endorsed by the Bordeaux Regional Committee and the colonel commanding the French 18th Military Region:
“ … for the purpose of making the MLE (Spanish Libertarian Movement) in France better known and with an eye to mopping up the Nazi redoubts still outstanding on French soil, an arrangement has been worked out to turn the erstwhile Libertad Battalion into a three-battalion Regiment.”
These units were to recruit CNT personnel by 15 March, given the formal agreement to have them up to full complement by that date. The National Committee had authority to appoint their commanders and vouch for any who might wish to sign up, with an assurance that the Regiment would not be dispatched to fight on the Eastern front, nor in the colonies.
As well as encouraging enrolment so as to set up the military group, the Confederation (CNT) paid special attention to the selection of personnel, incorporating into it CNT personnel with an appetite for the fight. This patronage is plain from a reading of the resolutions passed regarding the membership of the Libertad. We can find one instance of this in the accords reached at a plenary co-ordinating meeting held in Toulouse in 1945 (from 25 February onwards), at which it was agreed that the officers of the soon to be created Regiment would be vouched for by their Regional of origin and that the process of reorganizing the unit should proceed.
Even so, it does not look as of the conversion of the Battalion into a three-battalion regiment of Spanish anarchists came off, as there is information (admittedly little of it) about only one battalion – Santos’s battalion. This may well be down to Beruezo’s having mixed up the units whose creation was intended with three battalions of different nationalities that came in the end to make up the 8th Mixed Moroccan and Foreigners Regiment (RMME)of the Carnot Brigade, the military force to which the anarchist and the Basque units would be attached.
It should be made clear here that both the Santos unit and Ordoki’s could not properly be regarded as battalions, due to their paucity of numbers. In fact, those enlisted in the Libertad Battalion – who outnumbered Ordoki’s unit – would have numbered no more than three hundred over the months they were posted to the front line near Bordeaux. Even so, we can assume that, in the final days of the war and during the first post-war weeks, the membership would have grown as enlisting in a military unit made it easier for exiles to get their hands on papers and receive regular pay.
As for the name, even though the libertarian guerrilla unit clung to its original name – Libertad Battalion – when it became an infantry unit, that designation was only quasi-official, as in actual fact it – along with the Basque Brigade which was renamed the Gernika Battalion, was part of the 1st RMME Battalion, as we shall see in the next section.
- THE LIBERTAD BATTALION AND THE LIBERTARIAN PRESS
We have turned up few references to the Libertad in the anarchist press of the day, although the search has not been exhaustive. Nor can it be as the Spanish Libertarian Movement, always prolific in its publishing record in Spain itself, kept this up while in exile in France.
Besides, there are no surviving copies of many of the papers published, whether these have been lost due to the small print-runs of the day or because they are not catalogued in public or private library collections.
That being the case, we have confined our search to just a few important contemporary Libertarian Movement publications like España Libre and papers carrying the CNT mast-head.
As regards the former, España Libre, organ of the Liaison Committee of the Regional Confederation of the Centre of France, we have trawled through issues from the second half of 1945, in that it began publication in August that year. Our search has turned up no reference to the guerrilla unit.
In the other publication, CNT, official organ of the National Committee of the Libertarian Movement in France, we have looked into the months following the launch of the battalion (September to October 1944). And in CNT, Internal Bulletin of the Spanish Libertarian Movement in France, between March and May 1945. I the latter – which came to be known as the BOLETIN INTERIOR de la CNT (MLEF), in April, the month during which the offensive involving both the libertarian and the Basque units was under way, we have found two articles recounting the Santos group’s performance on the Médoc front. We analyze these in the next instalment of this report where we deal with the attack on the Nazi stronghold in Pointe de Grave (Gironde, Aquitaine).
Also, in the holdings of CNT which we have consulted there are testimonies to the close relationship between Libertad members and the Confederation; in September 1944 there was a small notice simply recording that a donation had been handed over “for the paper” by that anarchist unit. And in May 1945, there is a notice concerning a further donation (“For oppressed Spain”) made just a few days after the fighting in April.
Photo: Masthead of the newspaper CNT, from 21 September 1944 and a clipping of the announcement carried on page 3, as cited
THE LIBERTAD BATTALION: QUESTION MARKS
Comandante Santos’s fighting unit was an outstanding coda to the efforts made by anarcho-syndicalists in the fight for the liberation of France, which the CNT exploited in order to achieve greater recognition from the French authorities. What we do not know is where the battalion stood vis a vis thew split in the Libertarian Movement in exile.
In the France of the mid-1940s, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) turned into the most important organization of the Spanish republican exile community, both in terms of membership and of the activities it generated. But the confederal structure which it had taken so much effort to organize in clandestinity and to resurrect after the withdrawal of the occupation forces, began to fade once the membership once again got to grips with the CNT’s relationship with politics (in this instance with the structures of the Spanish government in exile).
In his book Los atentados contra Franco (1977), Elise Bayo tackles this issue:
“The Libertarian Movement in exile – made up of the three wings, the CNT, the FAI and the Libertarian Youth – found itself with impressive striking power by 1945. Its members had fought ferociously and heroically against the Germans.
That year something happened, the repercussions of which are being felt even today. The scattering of the membership throughout concentration camps in France and North Africa and the awful captivity in the conscript labour camps delayed the refloating of the CNT until the first national plenum was held in Muret, a few kilometres outside Toulouse, in 1944. Not that the membership had been idle in the interim. They swelled the ranks of the Resistance, eyes focused on Spain. The 1939 defeat and the installation of an authoritarian regime, the disintegration of which was not in sight, were reasons enough for a review of the political stances adopted during the Spanish civil war. The anarchists had more reason than anyone else to re-address the reasons behind defeat.”
Bayo goes on to state “… the CNT was not beholden to any political party and claimed to be a-political. CNT a-politicism has been deliberately misrepresented. Confederation members refused to engage with bourgeois politics and denounced the jiggery-pokery of professional politicians. The Confederation’s policy was revolution.”
Bayo mentions the situation by which the country was afflicted during the Second Republic:
“The text of the 1931 constitution claimed that Spain was a workers’ republic, but agrarian caciquismo still ruled the roost in the villages and the landowners were still masters of their latifundios. In a few industrial areas, entrepreneurs enforced their iron rule over the workers. After twenty years of persecution and blood-lewtting, CNT personnel displayed their ability to kep up a ‘no quarter’ battle against the boisses.
The CNT readied itself for revolution. During the war it had clung to this aim, but it did something that contradicted its anarchist postulates: it collaborated with the state, deferred to the need for militarization and agreed to serve in the government. Anarchist veterans were required, without much conviction, to engage in political struggle. In the wake of defeat – the revolution had not been made, nor had the war been won – they readdressed the matter.”
This was start of differences of opinion as two schools of thought began to emerge.
“One of them argued the need to stick by the pacts and the same line as during the war, agreeing to serve in the republican government in exile and standing by the engagement with politics. The other turned against such politicking and demanded a reversion to the purest essence of anarchism.”
The two schools of thought clashed at the First Congrreess of CNT Local Federations in exile. Held in Paris during the first fortnight of May 1945, a month after the Médoc offensive in which the Libertad and Gernika battalions served, it drew delegates who represented “… some 35,000 members. The only participants were the delegates from North Africa, England, Belgium and of course France, despite the determination to rally the whole of the libertarian exile communion … That said, if we consider the numerical significance of the libertarian community which had resumed its organization practices, this congress no doubt represents a high point in the rebuilding of the MLE in exile”, we read in the book El exilio republicano español en Toulouse, 1939-1999.
At that First Congress of Local Federations held in France, many of the delegations attending endorsed the organization’s reversion “to its principles and tactics and continuation of its anti-statist revolutionary trajectory”: in practice, this implied staying outside of the government-in-exile that other organizations were boosting so as to stand up to the Spanish communists’ hegemonic ambitions as the latter aimed to channel all opposition to the Franco regime through its own political structures.
However, the CNT surviving underground inside Spain was disposed to collaborate with other anti-Francoist forces. This disagreement over which tactics to adopt in order to bring about the overthrow of the dictator generated tensions between the membership living in exile and the members suffering repression in the Iberian peninsula. According to Bayo “… a gulf had opened up between the exiled organization and the members living and thinking within Spain. Their viewpoints were different. The ones n the interior argued that the exiles had inexorably drifted away from reality and that the latter could only be properly interpreted by those who were risking their necks in the frontal struggle.”
The malaise within the CNT ranks emerged later, before the year was out, when on exiled faction sided with the stance of the Confederation inside Spain. A confrontation did not take long to come, generating two schools of opinion: the so-called “orthodox” one which championed the resolutions of the First Congress of Local Federations in France, and the “reformist” one which was critical of the accords that had come out of that gathering.
The range of insults and disavowals traded between the advocates of both standpoints peaked when the critical faction endorsed the decision by the membership of the CNT in Spain to serve in the government set up on 21 August 1945 in Mexico (a government headed by José Giral, erstwhile prime minister during the first three months of the Spanish Civil War). The Confederation of the Interior nominated two comrades – Horacio Martínez Prieto (1902-1985) and José Expósito Leiva (1918-1978) – to the new executive.
The reaction from the “orthodox” faction was not long in coming; and a bitter confrontation culminated in those two CNT members being disowned by the CNT in exile, the secretariat of which included representatives of the “purist” anarchists like Germinal Esgleas (1903-1981), its national secretary , and Federica Montseny (1905-1994), secretary in charge of Press and Propaganda.
Regarding Montseny, Bayo recounts how she took part in the Paris Congress, where shedelivered a speech in defence of the stance of the “orthodoxes” along with another co-religionist: “At the closing session, four orators spoke, two from each faction. Ramon Alvarez and Jacinto Borras on behalf of the reformists and Federica Montseny and Juan Puig Elias on behalf of the orthodoxes.”
A well-known member of the Education profession, Juan Puig Elias (1896-1972) served during the Spanish Civil War as under-secretary at the Ministry of Education and Public Health, the minister – Segundo Blanco González (1899-1957) – was another prominent anarchist. During his subsequent exile in France, Juan Puig Elias had joined the Resistance by enrolling in the Libertad Battalion and taken part in the fighting in Pointe de Grave.
Given Puig’s charisma and the weight that his opinion would have had on other members of the battalion, we wonder how many of the fighters in that unit would have shared his preservationist stance in a quarrel that was about to linger for nearly two decades (as the two CNT factions did not engaged with the reconciliation process until the 1960s).
What we do know is that the former guerrillas from the anarchist unit closely monitored the convening of the First Congress in France. That interest is noted in an article signed by El reporter in the BOLETIN INTERIOR de la CNT (MLEF), No 11. The author – quite possibly a member of the battalion with journalistic duties – refers to the troops’ upbeat state of mind during a pause prior to the April 1945 atack upon the German positions defending the Medoc peninsula.
Shortly after that fighting and as the clash within the Libertarian Movement was a-hatching, Santos’s group – like Ordoki’s and other units – was demobbed. The military authorities had it in mind to rebuild France’s regular army and to disband all the maquis, whilst also taking steps to dispense with or reshuffle units into which the guerrilla groups had been marshalled in the dying days of the war. Natrally, that fact would have some impact on the schism within the ranks of the Spanish anarchists in exile. So we have two grey areas; did the Libertad Battalion stand aside during the previous months? And, after, it was disbanded, did it members and Puig Elias play any role in the quarrel?
There is another obviously unanswered question: what was the stance of the Libertad Battalion’s commander in the quarrel that split the Libertarian Movement? Did Santos, who was so quick with his answer when it came to arming CNT militants, share the same view as the secretariat elected at the First Congress of Local Federations?
10. THE ENIGMA OF SANTOS, the LIBERTAD BATTALION’s COMANDANTE
There is not much written evidence about the man in charge of the libertarian unit and – as we have said before – in some cases different names are used for him. Although the same cannot be said of his (essentially paternal) surname, since the battalion was known as the Santos Battalion (of Santos’s Battalion or also the CNT … or FAI Battalion).
A curt reference to the organization to which this person (named as Liberto) belonged and a mention of the unit’s last engagement – “Captain Liberto Santos was from the CNT and he carried the flag of the Republic rather than the red flag in the attack on La Pointe ….” Appear in the book Hasta la total aniquilacion by Fernando Martinez de Banos, a writer cited throughout this study in relation to other aspects of the Libertad Battalion.
In texts published by the Fundación Andreu Nin regarding the foundation of the unit, Wilebaldo Solano introduces the soon-to-be comandante under a different name: “Manuel Santos, a Spanish anarchist who had acquired his military experience in the battle-fronts in Spain and whom I had met in Eysses, struck me as the man best equipped to lead the unit being formed.”
From what he days we can dediuce that their meeting-place was in the afore-mentioned prison (Eysses) and that Santos was a fellow-inmate there, on which basis oy might in theory be possible to obtain further detuils about him (full name, sentence imposed, transfers …) by checking out the lists of Spanish prisoners held there. But on examining the name lists we find just one entry under the surname claimed by the battalion commander: SANTOS MANZANARES (forename not given), native of Madrid, born on 2 July 1914:
Surname Forename Date of birth Place of Birth
SANTOS MANZANARES 02/07/1914 Madrid
The entry in the list under SANTOS MANZANARES
In another list we find the fates recorded for the prisoners after they were transferred out of Eysses. In the case of Santos Manzanares, he was transported to Dachau, so he could not have headed the Libertad Battalion, as it may be assumed he was part of the convoy of prisoners shipped off to that sinister concentration camp under escort from the terrifying Das Reich SS division.
SPANIARDS IMPRISONED IN EYSSES
As we have looked only at the list of political prisoners, there is a chance – albeit remote – that he was an ordinary prisoner since the prison at Eysses also housed hundreds of those. But there is also a chance that Solano is referring to the place where the penitentiary was, so his meeting with Santos need not necessarily have happened in prison. Maybe the future comandante of the libertarian battalion was serving in one of the maquis groups fighting in the Villeneuve-sur-Lot sector (maybe even – and why not? – the one that liberated the prison), in the course of which events he may have run into the POUM leader. An interesting hypothesis, but there is nothing to sustain it.
Pressing on in our search through lists of Spanish antifascists imprisoned in internment camps, we have looked into the possibility that comandante Santos might have served in the GTE in the important metal-working plant in Fumel, since it is known that there was a CNT group in existence there (Wilebaldo Solano attended one of its meetings). A search of the web serves us up a name-list (its authors compiled it after ferreting through the archives of the Lot-et-Garonne department) and it lists the Spanish republicans dispatched from the Septfonds camp to the Fumel plant.
It includes name, birthdate, city or province of birth and occupation of each person. It also includes the dates of entry into France, the camps in which he was interned and the date of admission to the plat in Fumel between 1939 and 1944.
Of the 334 Spanish republicans listed, only four bore the name Santos, but none was called Liberto or Manuel, so it is unlikely that any of them was the battalion commander we are looking for. Those names are:
DE LOS SANTOS, German
DOB: 18 July 1916; Place of birth: Madrid; Mechanic in Madrid; Arrival in France: 10/02/1939; Camps: Septfonds-Gurs-Septfonds; Joined SMMP: 13 October 1939
DE LOS SANTOS, Marcos
DOB: 14 February 1914; Place of birth: Soria; Draughtsman in Madrid; Arrival in France: 10/02/1939; Camps: Septfonds-Gurs-Septfonds; Joined SMMP: 13 December 1939
DOB: 5 July 1913; Foundry-worker; Arrival in France: 09/02/1939; Camps: Le Perthus-St Cyprien-Barcarés-Argelès-Septfonds; Joined SMMP: 13 November 1939
DOB: 5 August 1889; Place of birth: Corral de Almagro; Farmer in Corral del Almagro; Arrival in France: 24/06/1939; Camps: Barcarés-Bram-Septfonds; Joined SMMP: 9 December 1939
Above: Spanish Republican Prisoners named Santos sent from Septfonds camp to Fumel
The last one named above has no connection with the Libertad Battalion commander, because, given his date of birth (1889) he would have been 55 years of age when that guerrilla group was formed, an age that does not fit with the appearance of the anarchist comandante in photographs from the time.
What little pictorial evidence there is amounts to a couple of snapshots taken a few days after the battle of Pointe de Grave and the liberation of the Médoc (April 1945). In one of them his blurry – and all but unidentifiable – figure carrying a large republican flag during a military parade in which General De Gaulle, accompanied by General De Larminat, is reviewing Colonel De Millerret’s (Carnot) troops at the Grayan airfield (Gironde).
In the other picture where the quality is better the comandante is shown marching past the theatre in Bordeaux during a parade to celebrate the German defeat. This snapshot shows us a low-set individual of energetic bearing. The steadfast figure of the Libertad Battalion’s commander was demonstrated in the clashes he heads against the leaders of the UNE and in the tense confrontation he had with Ravanel in Toulouse whilst in negotiations over the autonomy of the guerrilla group which he was in charge of.
As we can see, we are dealing here with somebody who came out of nowhere, led an anarchist partisan unit-turned French Army infantry battalion for a few months, and took part in the last fighting of the Second World War in mainland France, only to vanish again, leaving no trace behind.
The men enlisted in the unit he led were not slow to follow him, as most of them also evaporated, as we shall see in forthcoming chapters. But before we look at what few anarchist fighters have been identified, in our forthcoming instalment, The Fight for the Médoc, we shall be looking into how the battalion performed in the attack mounted in the Gironde estuary during the final weeks of war.