10 julio, 2016

The Heroism of Spanish Republicans in World War II

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: 


08 julio, 2016

The Last Flight of the Natachas

In war, improving weather is never a good omen for those awaiting an attack. On the morning of December 24th, 1938,  everyone at Rosanes, an airfield near La Garriga, was looking forward to the Christmas Eve party. Under the Republic, this holiday had been disguised as a “Winter Festival.” Unfortunately, Franco had launched the final offensive against Cataluña the previous day, and by mid-morning the activity on the airfield had become intense. The Natacha squadron had just received the order to bomb the enemy advance near Fonllogosa, on the Balaguer front.

The trucks were driving across the runway, starting the engines of the planes. The gunners were testing their weapons by firing short bursts. The pilots could not do the same. Due to the matériel shortages, the forward-facing machine guns had been dismounted in order to equip Polikarpov I-15 “Chatos,” which left the Natachas unarmed should the gunner be overcome by enemy bullets. At two o’clock, the first airplane took off, piloted by squadron leader Eustaquio Gutiérrez of Toledo. After a few minutes, the nine Natachas—grouped in an arrow of three patrols—left the sky of La Garriga. Half an hour later, they met up with their fighter escort, the two remaining squadrons of Polikarpov I-16 “Moscas.” The ten airplanes of 6th Squadron flew two hundred meters above the bombers, while the nine of 7th Squadron flew about halfway between 6th Squadron and the Natachas. The fighters had to zigzag to match speed with the slow bombers without stalling. At this point in the war, the Natachas were already obsolete in light of the technical advances of the latest Italian and German airplane models that were operated by the Nationalists.

After an hour and twenty minutes in the air, the Natachas arrived at their target and were received by dense antiaircraft fire. They dropped their bombs at an altitude of five hundred meters and began the flight home. The intensity of the ground fire forced them to disperse too much, although they did not break formation entirely. The shooting stopped suddenly. The escorting Moscas were already far away when a storm of Nationalist Fiats bounced the Natachas. The enemy fighters, which were returning from a mission to protect a bombing raid, had noticed the situation. The Fiats mercilessly attacked the Natachas, whose only defense was a dizzying dive. Without fighter cover or rapid-fire machine guns, they were easy prey.

The first to fall was the squadron leader, Eustaquio Gutiérrez, and his gunner, Teodoro Garrote. They were wounded by bullets, forced to parachute above enemy territory, and captured. Gutiérrez’ right wingman was also hit by Fiats. The pilot, José Gómez, received a shrapnel wound to the head. Almost blinded by blood, he was also in extreme pain from an explosive bullet in his ankle. Meanwhile, the gunner, Juan José Ruiz, who had received six shots in one leg, continued to fire until he fainted. When they reached Republican lines, the fuel was running along the floor of the cabin, threatening fire. They force-landed on a mountain two kilometers to the north of the Osó of Balaguer, a shrubland near a ravine. They were picked up by a small group of Republican soldiers that saw the accident and carried them by mule to a field hospital. The doctors, believing the pilot dead, concentrated on his comrade until a seven-year-old boy touches the body and realized that Gómez was still alive. Later, he would regain consciousness, but he would remain deaf because they had to remove both ears. The gunner’s leg had to be amputated.

The third airplane of the first patrol, Guiterrez’s left wingman, was hit. The gunner, Diego López, stopped shooting because of his wounds. Defenseless, the pilot Antonio Nicolás managed to reach Republican territory, but he died in a crash while trying to force-land. His gunner would follow him to the grave a day later.

The Natacha that led the second patrol, piloted by Farncisco Palma, dove wildly, hounded by its pursuers, and managed to land near Tárrega. However, the plane was irreparably damaged and both pilot and gunner injured. To their right, Antonio Arijita’s airplane managed to escape alone without anyone having seen it, but it did not return to Rosanes. Arijita and his gunner, Martiniano Lumbreras, were both presumed dead. Their comrades did not know that he had managed to land in Vic without being hit by a single bullet.

The bomber to the left, in which Isidoro Nájera and Dionisio Onoro were flying, managed to escape with one from the third patrol, that of Luis Villalvilla and Antonio Lizaga. Aided by the four fighters that follow them, both Natachas defended themselves, even managing to shoot down one of the Fiats. These two Natachas were the only ones that managed to return to La Garriga.

The leader of the last flight, Hector de Diego, dove at over 500 kilometers per hour while he listened to the insults of his gunner mixed with the staccato gunfire. After leaving the fighters behind, he tried to force-land immediately so that his gunner, who had been wounded in the leg, could receive medical attention. De Diego’s Natacha nosed up on a field, where the airplane turned over abruptly. After being attended to in Cervera, they managed to return to Barcelona in a car. After spending a few hours in the Platón Clinic where his companion’s leg wounds were treated, de Diego decided to leave him and return to La Garriga.

The last Natacha, that of Ramón D’Ocón, had worse luck. Pursued by some of the most experienced enemy pilots, among them the Nationalist ace García Morato, this last airplane was the one that received the most hits. The gunner, Enrique Sanz, never stopped firing his rapid-fire Shkás. That day, it had been his turn to relieve a comrade as the photographer in the last plane. After the Natacha was overtaken, the pilot parachuted. Despairing, he watched the airplane, with Enrique Sanz still inside, crash into the swamp of Camarassa. After hiding all night in no-man’s land cursing the death of his friend, D’Ocón managed to reach Republican lines.

When Hector de Diego arrived at La Garriga, at three on Christmas morning, the silence was sepulchral. The table had been set for the Christmas Eve dinner, but it was untouched, the emptiness lit by candlelight. The Natacha squadron of Rosanes was already history.

Members of 2nd Squadron in front of the Chalet. 
Photograph taken by Héctor de Diego, one of the pilots.

Note: Following an annual tradition, on Sant Jordi’s Day (April 23rd), my wife Laura gave me a book: Aviació i guerra a La Garriga. 1933-1946 by David Gesalí and David Iñiguez. Although the narrative sometimes gets lost in local, somewhat provincial, details, the book is magnificently documented and illustrated. This article draws some crucial details from that work.

Translation by Katya Anderson of orgininal spanish text: http://bit.ly/29mVUei


Cuando inicié este blog, hace de eso ya mas de ocho años, imaginaba una metáfora: la del naufrago que arroja una botella al océano de internet, sin saber a quién le llegará. Lo que nunca pude imaginar eran las respuestas que he ido recibiendo en todo ese tiempo.

Hace unos años me encontró mi tío Pepe y pude conocer su maravillosa historia, hasta ese momento totalmente desconocida por mí: http://bit.ly/29Dz44P

Un antiguo vecino  del barrio de mi infancia al que tampoco había conocido, me ayudó a encontrar una fotografía que andaba buscando: http://bit.ly/1fFUwoL

Compañeros en el viaje de la memoria han ido enriqueciendo con sus precisiones algunas narraciones. No importaba si sucedían en plena batalla contra los carlistas, en un barco de regreso de Cuba o durante la Guerra Civil.

Otros me animaban en sus correos a seguir contando historias y me pedían ayuda para poder encontrar las pistas adecuadas que les llevara a documentar las de sus familias, en muchos casos muy parecidas a las que me gusta contar.

Incluso he recibido mensajes de lectores desconocidos que, desde la otra punta del mundo, me confesaban que llevaban años leyéndome porque les emocionaba como propios algunos de los hechos que contaba.

Hace unos meses, recibí un email de Katya Anderson.  Me escribía desde Seattle para contarme que quería traducir algunas de mis historias al inglés. Su idea me pareció maravillosa: quería que estuvieran a disposición de las personas que quisieran leerlas en esa lengua. Katya me confesaba que también era aspirante a novelista y le interesaban sobre todo las historias de aviación porque en su ciudad estaba la fábrica de Boeing donde se construyeron muchos aviones que lucharon durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial. Esa pasión le llevó a interesarse para una novela corta por la historia de los pilotos voluntarios norteamericanos que lucharon por la República Española.

Para mí es un honor poder traer aquí sus traducciones. Con todo mi agradecimiento.