When World War II broke out, nearly 150,000 Spanish Republican veterans remained in France. Most of them had been received with hostility by the French authorities after they had crossed the border just a few months earlier. Now, their experience in combat during the Spanish Civil War made them useful again for roles in military operations. They were offered the opportunity to leave the internment camps by enlisting in the French Foreign Legion. Most, however, held strong ideological convictions against this, and refused. When the French authorities realized that few Spaniards were enlisting, they invented another way to recruit these veterans: the Companies of Foreign Workers, entrusted with defense and the construction of fortifications. An estimated 75,000 men enlisted, voluntarily or by force, in these companies. Another 35,000 joined the French Army.
From the outbreak of the Second World War, the former Republican soldiers distinguished themselves in military operations against the Nazis. At the beginning of the war, the Allies decided to occupy the ports of northern Norway, from which Swedish iron was shipped to the Third Reich. Unfortunately, the Germans arrived first and invaded the country. French and British expeditionary forces tried to help the Norwegian armed forces to reconquer their country. Due to the Nazi advantage, however, they decided to concentrate on the northern ports. Among these Allied expeditionary units was the 13 Brigade of the French Foreign Legion, half of whose soldiers were former Republicans. Despite heavy casualties inflicted by superior enemy forces, the 13 Brigade managed to free the people of Narvik. General Béthouart, who was in command of the brigade, described these nine hundred Spaniards as "dark, troublemakers, difficult to command, but extraordinarily courageous.” Their accomplishment was in vain, because the Allied High Command decided to withdraw from Norway in view of the disaster on the French front. In this battle many Spaniards died; they are still buried there. One of them won the first French Military Medal. This was the first award of several thousand that our compatriots would win during the war.
|Tombs of Spanish soldiers in Narvik|
After the rapid advance of the German divisions and the collapse of the front in France, the British and French soldiers were besieged at the port of Dunkirk. There, the British hastily mustered all available boats. For five days Royal Navy evacuated the British Royal Expeditionary Force, only then allowing the boarding of French troops and soldiers from other nations. Those left behind included twenty thousand Spaniards enrolled in eight work companies, numbering 111 through 118. Less than half of the Spaniards from these companies had reached Dunkirk; the rest had fallen in battle or been taken prisoner. The Spaniards who did manage to reach the port were not allowed to board ships. Less than two thousand managed to reach the English coast by their own means, and most of these were treated as German prisoners and even returned to France. In France, Republicans who had been imprisoned by the Nazis were considered stateless, stripped of the status of prisoners of war, and deported to the death camps. Many of them were interned in Mauthansen, another story that merits retelling.
Our countrymen continued fighting for the duration of the war on several fronts, both in Europe and in North Africa. In 1942, the XIV Army of Spanish Guerillas was created in honor of the unit of the same name which had fought during the Civil War. It was formed of 7 divisions and 31 battalions, which were reorganized into the Association of Spanish Guerillas. These units, although in theory dependent on the Free French armed forces, had complete autonomy and were instrumental in Resistance operations against the Germans.
On the night of August 24, 1944, the 9th Company broke into the center of Paris via the Porte d'Italie. Its soldiers wore American military uniforms, but belonged to the French army coming to liberate Paris. Names like Belchite, Guadalajara and Brunete were emblazoned on the fairing of their tanks. The first to enter the town hall square, firing at a nest of German machine-guns, displayed in white letters the word “Ebro.” When civilians took to the streets singing the Marseillaise, they were astonished to see the first Allied soldiers speaking Spanish and waving the tricolor flag of the Second Spanish Republic. The 9th Company was composed of Spaniards and belonged to the 2nd Armored Division. Commanded by General Leclerc, the 2nd Division had landed at Normandy and advanced on the French capital. The division also participated in the equally symbolic military operation of taking the Eagle's Nest, the mountain residence from which Hitler had planned the conquest of Europe. Of the 148 Spanish soldiers who landed on Utah Beach in Normandy, only 16 survived the war. It was the 9th Company, the names of the cities where its soldiers had fought during the Civil War painted on its tanks, that opened General de Gaulle’s victory parade on the Champs Elysées in Paris. In March 1945, the French government gave the Republicans refugee status, in recognition of their heroics in the Resistance and in the victory over fascism.
|Spaniards in the victory parade|
But, later, the official history forgot them. The brave British army did not want to remember the shame of its behavior at Dunkirk, and De Gaulle’s chauvinistic nationalism could not admit that the first soldiers to enter Paris had been Spanish. The victors broke the last hope of these men who, after being defeated in their own country and neglected by their neighbors, did not hesitate to again take up arms to liberate Europe from fascism. Europe did not try to continue its struggle, and permitted the fascist dictator of Spain to die in bed after forty years of tyranny and the stories of these heroes to rest, like so many others, in the box of oblivion.
You can find more information on the following websites, which I consider very interesting:
English translation by Katya Anderson of the spanish text:
dormidasenelcajondelolvido by José María Velasco is licensed under a Creative Commons Reconocimiento-No comercial-Sin obras derivadas 3.0 España License.