By Jonathan Whitehead

Pen & Sword Books. 304 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-39900-451-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Anyone interested in reading about the Spanish Civil War can choose from a range of books, both old and new, which look at different aspects of the conflict and encompass just about everything from general histories to personal memoirs. The International Brigades, for example, have been written about in more ways than one. And programmes on TV have provided visual portraits of events and personalities, sometimes to the point where the glamour surrounding the celebrities visiting the war-zone seems more important than what was happening to the poorly-armed troops (many of them volunteers and without military training) holding the line against Franco’s better-equipped army.

There are also the sad scenes as the Republic collapsed and thousands of refugees, both soldiers and civilians, poured into France and internment. I have on my desk a collection of poems by Philip Levine. The book is called The Names of the Lost and both the front and back covers have a photograph of a long column of Republican soldiers, disarmed and carrying everything they have managed to salvage, being led into what was essentially captivity by a French gendarme. To be fair, the French government had opened the border to allow the refugees to enter, but it was overwhelmed by the numbers involved and had no time to prepare for their arrival. Living conditions in the makeshift camps that were set up were at best rudimentary, at worst primitive.

What happened to the people pushed into what Jonathan Whitehead refers to as concentration camps? The luckier ones were rescued by friends, or found other ways to get out, and either left France or dispersed around the country. The unlucky ones waited to see what would happen, knowing that a war with Germany was almost inevitable. Men from the International Brigades who had gone to Spain from countries like Germany and Italy were particularly concerned. They couldn’t return to their homelands. One option open to them, and to Spanish Republicans, was to enlist in the French Foreign Legion. And when France fell, and some forms of opposition to the occupiers began to emerge, it was possible to join a Resistance group. Spanish Republicans may, in fact, have played a leading role in the early days of the Resistance. There was also the opportunity to become a member of the Free French Army in North Africa.

It’s probably true to say that little has been written about the role of Spanish Republicans in the Second World War. Passing references have mentioned them, and documentaries about the liberation of Paris in 1944 sometimes bring in the fact that the lead vehicles in General Leclerc’s Second Armoured Division were manned by veterans of the Spanish Civil War. De Gaulle, anxious to create a myth of the Parisians themselves ridding the city of Germans was always keen to play down the involvement of other nationalities, just as he was to minimise the role of communists in the Resistance. This isn’t to suggest that the Spaniards who fought with the Resistance, or served with regular army units, were necessarily communists. Anarchists, for example, were also prominent. But it’s difficult to determine what individual fighters in any context saw as their political affiliations. Suffice to say that all of them looked to a time when they could participate in returning to Spain to overthrow Franco and re-establish a Spanish Republic.

Whitehead provides some details of the numbers involved in various organisations. Around three thousand joined the Foreign Legion, and “their most significant involvement in the Second World War was their role in operations in Norway which were truncated by the German attack on the Low Countries and France”. Roughly the same number opted for the Régiments de Marche de Voluntaires Étrangers (RMVE), special units formed to provide support for other elements of the French Army. There were also fifty-five thousand in the Compagnies de Travailleurs Étrangers (CTE), “unarmed work battalions” which were sent to the Maginot Line, and to “the Swiss border, to the south coast area adjacent to the Italian frontier and to the north coast area near Dunkirk”. They were employed on the upkeep of existing military installations, digging anti-tank trenches, and similar work. It’s also relevant to note that approximately four thousand other refugees had been released from the camps to work on the land when French agricultural workers were called up.

Whitehead’s account of the early days of the war suggests that: “An unknown number of Spanish recruits in CTE 118 which had been assigned to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fought in the rearguard as hundreds of thousands of Allied troops massed on the beaches of Dunkirk. Approximately thirty Spaniards were later rescued alongside French troops in the final hours of Operation Dynamo”.  And he tells other stories about Spaniards involved in the fighting as the German onslaught continued. One small group attached to the Manchester Regiment when told that only British troops were being evacuated managed to obtain British uniforms and mingle with soldiers being evacuated at St Nazaire. They arrived in Plymouth and “were eventually recruited into the No. 1 (Spanish) Company of the Royal Pioneer Corps”. It’s more than probable that had they been captured by the Germans they would have been sent to the Mauthasen concentration camp where many thousands of Spanish Republicans were held.

Those Spaniards who remained in France were quick to form “solidarity networks” that were, Whitehead says, “the precursors of resistance units”. He additionally points to “the first recorded action of Spanish resistance workers ……in the winter of 1940/41, a sabotage team in central France partially destroyed a railway bridge at Saint-Brice-sur-Vienne”. The news soon spread to other Spaniards, many of whom were being forced by the Germans to work on the Atlantic Wall and the submarine bases at Brest and La Rochelle”. Many were also employed in the Channel Islands building bunkers and an underground military hospital.

Some Spanish Republicans who had found their way to the Soviet Union served in the Russian Army (estimates of the numbers involved range from eight hundred to fourteen hundred), and others joined up with partisan groups who fought guerrilla actions against the Nazis. In the Middle East, Spanish troops were part of the Allied forces in Lebanon and Syria. And it’s said that of the three thousand five hundred men who put up a stout defence at Bir Hakeim in North Africa, one thousand were Spanish.

In North Africa General Leclerc was now in charge of the 2nd Armoured Division which included  Spaniards. It was what Whitehead describes as a “light armoured division, and was equipped by the US Army with Sherman tanks, half-tracks, armoured cars, bazookas and anti-tank weapons”. It seems that a number of men deserted from the Foreign Legion and joined Leclerc’s regiment. Whitehead gives an account of the 9th Company of the 3rd battalion which “was made up almost exclusively of Spanish soldiers”. Its commander was French and, in later years, he claimed that he was there partly because he spoke Spanish but also because other officers were “afraid” of the Spaniards: “They lacked military spirit, some were even ‘anti-military’, but they were magnificent soldiers, brave and battle-hardened warriors”. And other French officers said: “They never retreated. They never gave up an inch of land they had taken. They always went first”.

Not all Spaniards fought with the French, and Whitehead has accounts of several who served with British forces. Justo Balerdi had started with the Foreign Legion in Africa, but deserted when the Vichy government came to power. He joined the Queen’s Royal Regiment, trained as a commando and saw action on the Greek island of Castellorizo. He fought in the Desert War “with various army groups”, and then was taken into the Special Air Service. He was dropped into France behind enemy lines and teamed up with the Maquis to carry out acts of sabotage. He next moved onto Northern Italy, again working with partisans to disrupt German lines of communication. He was killed in a raid on a German supply depot. Another Spaniard, José Maria Irala, went in with the paratroopers and was killed in the Arnhem operation.

It had been confidently expected by many Republicans that, once Germany was defeated, the Allies would turn their attention to Spain. Franco had resisted attempts to bring Spain into the war on the side of the Germans and Italians, and had taken care to deter Hitler from using Spain as a springboard to attack Gibraltar. It quickly became obvious that neither Britain nor America had any real interest in overthrowing Franco. The politics of post-war Europe were complex, and even before the war came to a close there were plans to limit the influence of communists when countries began to recover. Italy and France had strong communist parties, and it may have been thought that aiding or even just encouraging Spanish Republicans to invade Spain might lead to a hard left-leaning government there. Clement Attlee had visited Spain during the Civil War and been photographed giving the clenched fist salute with members of the International Brigades but, faced with the political situation that applied ten years later, he and his staunchly anti-communist Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, made it clear that intervention in Spain was not part of their post-war agenda.   

Left to their own devices some Spaniards did attempt an invasion, though others considered it a foolhardy plan with few hopes of success. The force that crossed the border in late-1945 was lightly armed, and though it met with little initial opposition it was clear that, once Franco began to move troops and artillery into the area, it would only be a matter of time before the invaders would be pushed back. There was, too, the problem that the civilian population showed hardly any enthusiasm for another civil war. Franco’s army and police had exerted too tight a control for a rising to succeed. Some guerrilla activity continued into the late-1940s but achieved only limited objectives.

Whitehead looks at the role of the Communist Party in Spain in the aftermath of the Second World War. Driven underground, it seemed to spend much of its time engaging in bitter in-fighting, with expulsions and assassinations being the order of the day. It had lost credibility because of the fact that, when thousands were driven into exile in France, and often carried on the anti-fascist fight, many of the Party leaders had escaped to Moscow and survived the war.

I think it’s worth noting that Whitehead devotes some space to the Spaniards who fought alongside German soldiers in Russia. They were an element in Franco’s plan to placate Hitler while ensuring that Spain would not participate directly in the war. Around twenty thousand volunteers seem to have served on the Russian front at one time or another. They were noted for their bravery.

Spanish Republicans and the Second World War is a useful addition to the library of books about the Spanish Civil War and its consequences. It balances the broad outline of what happened with the activities of individual men and women who were determined to carry on the fight to overthrow fascism, no matter that circumstances often seemed to be against them. It’s clearly written, has extensive notes and a bibliography.  It tells an ultimately unhappy story in terms of dreams of freeing Spain from tyranny being dashed when Britain and America backed away from intervening. But it is inspiring in drawing attention to the very real sacrifices that were made by people who nursed those dreams through years of exile and war.