The Lyon Hold-Up and Its Impact on the Libertarian Movement in Exile

The hold-up in the rue Duguesclin in Lyon was a watershed moment for the action groups, the MLE and the French government

For those not in the know, the anarchist action groups that operated through the 1940s and 1950s did not operate solely on Spanish soil. And it would be a mistake to see them as confined to Catalonia, albeit that it is from there that we have the most details. But once they crossed the border, the groups operated in Aragon, Madrid and even Andalusia. And even in Italy, but above all, within France.

Despite the chorus of recrimination directed at them from the anarchist trade union bureaucracy, which was in favour of inactivity and not rocking the boat, especially with regard to the French authorities, they carried on with their operations. But, knowing the huge deficit in terms of the requisite funding to assist all of the imprisoned comrades and their families, or to support the libertarian press,  carried out a host of fund-raising raids in France. In addition to such raids, they also set about hatching a variety of personal attentats, buying, shipping and storing large amounts of arms and explosives, or indulging in large-scale counterfeiting of documents, currency, lottery tickets or anything that might be of assistance to the underground struggle.

Although the bulk of the Spanish Libertarian Movement (MLE) committees in exile were fed up with direct action, both the Coordination Section, headed by (among others) Pedro Mateu (one of the authors of the assassination of Eduardo Dato) or José Pascual Palacios and the Sección de Fomento (headed by Laureano Cerrada) ploughed ahead with clandestine operations and direct confrontation with Franco. 

Between the victory over the Germans (a victory to which libertarians had made an active contribution) and the end of the 1940s, there had been frantic activity. But little by little, the French State was zeroing in on those anarchists who stepped out of line. On the one hand, in Spain Franco was exterminating them with the incalculable assistance of his agents embedded in the anarchist committees in exile, and, on the other, the French State was tightening the screws and closing in on activists, albeit without much public fuss, as a lot of those same anarchists had heroic records as members of the Resistance in France. In the wake of yet another act of treachery, some of the presses used by Laureano Cerrada in the counterfeiting of documents and currency were uncovered. The odd arms cache was unearthed there too. Shortly after that, Cerrada was jailed. 

But the coup de grace for the supporters of direct action in France came with the notorious, yet little-known armed hold-up in Lyon. Notorious in that it drew down media attention on to the MLE for a long time and little-known in that Spanish anarchism never again brought up the matter of the hold-up.

And so, off we go again, but not to the Pyrenees this time, nor to the streets of Barcelona, nor the high country in Andalusia. Today we are heading for Lyon where many Spanish libertarians had settled and where some of them, in order to raise funds for the prosecution of clandestine activities, were hatching an armed robbery.

On 18 January 1951, at 7.00 p.m., there was a shift in relations between the MLE and the French government. 

A black Citroen stolen the previous week in Ain, and displaying the licence plates 1878-E69, cut off and forced a post office van to a halt in the Rue Duguesclin in Lyon. Three of the car doors were flung open and four men emerged, brandishing machine-guns; one of them was long-haired as the press was to stress; as two of the others kept watch, two of the robbers rushed towards the van. At that very moment, one of the guards stepped out of the van to wait for bank staff approaching with bags of cash. Before he realized what was afoot, the raiders tried to immobilize him from behind, but he fought back and managed to break free of their clutches. When the guard stepped aside to dodge his assailants and made to draw his own gun, a burst of machine-gun fire dropped him to the ground. The next burst was directed at the cab of the van, shattering the windows and hitting the occupants. Panic and chaos ensued; with people running around in all directions and others sprawled on the ground. 

And the haul? Nothing, zero. Because the man in charge of fetching the money from the bank had yet to set foot on the street. During the gunfight that erupted, one of the raiders was shot in the leg but plainly the guards were on the losing side. The raiders gathered up their wounded comrade and made for the Citroen, its engine still running, and fled down the deserted street as fast as they could go. 

And now, let us break things down. For one thing, who made up the gang of raiders? Well, five anarchists, most of them FAI members, from groups with ties to Laureano Cerrada; three of them came from the Lyon area and two from Toulouse. Have they been identified? Yes, the gang members were Francisco Bailo Mata who was at the wheel of the Citroen, his brother Jose, who was in charge of the raid, Juan Sanchez ‘el Pelao’ (the long-haired guy) and the two comrades who had travelled up especially from Toulouse – Antonio Guardia Socada and an old acquaintance of ours, the irrepressible escaper Joan Català. Why the shoot-out? Going by the information available to us, the two guards escorting the driver were expected as the plan had been minutely worked out along with the time-table and the itinerary since Francisco worked just two streets away from the location of the raid. What they had not been expecting was resistance from those two guards. And the upshot of the gun-battle? Things turned out badly, worse than badly if we consider what it later unleashed. Both of the policemen in the van, Guy Arnaud and Louis Morin were killed and Auguste Jars (a pedestrian who would die days later) was seriously wounded. The van driver Jean-Marie Janin was also injured, as were a further 8 civilians, and as for the raiders, as we have seen, Joan Català took a gunshot to the leg.

We come now to act two: the French Interior ministry’s relentless search for the police-killers. On 19 January 1951, a huge operation was mounted, involving every police officer in the city, in an effort to discover the identity and whereabouts of the raiders. On the 20th, every single member of the various police agencies in Lyon launched a huge round-up targeting underworld circles in the city. And the upshot of their efforts? Nothing. On the 24th, the police forces were again mobilized on a massive scale, but the targets this time were garages and workshops and parking places in a search for anything that might lead them to the car that had been used. Upshot? Nothing. The plates and a few pieces from a Citroen were found in the La Jonage canal, but although these was not from the car used in the Rue Duguesclin raid, they turned out to be matches for a car that had been used in a hold-up in the Rue Pierre Semard back in September 1950. The police finally had a lead and they threw everything into following it up and this soon produced results. On 27 January, the car used by the raiders was found in the same canal. 

Well, the fact is that the first things uncovered were parts matching the type of car used in the raid and after the search as stepped up and part of the canal was drained, they came up with the remainder of the vehicle, two kilometres downstream. As if further proof was needed, officer Morin’s machine-gun, snatched from him after he was dead, was found inside the car. On 28 January, after a lot of questioning, another lead was unearthed: a bunch of shabbily dressed Spaniards had been seen driving around in a car like the one used in the raid. Despite several thousand identity checks and house searches and turning the districts where the Spanish émigrés lived upside down, no suspects could be identified until, on 30 January, inquiries led to the arrest of 37 year-old Juan Sánchez el Pelao, the long-haired suspect. On 2 February, the police tracked down Francisco Bailo Mata, hiding out in the Des Iris district. A few days after that, the police came upon the dead body of his brother José, with a bullet wound to the head and a short note explaining that he did not want to see further bloodshed and that the outlook was hopeless. Besides the three suspects, the police turned up the names of Antonio Guardia Socada (a former inmate of Le Vernet concentration camp, like many another Spanish republican) and Joan Català Balanyà, one the Ponzán Network’s people-smugglers. Furthermore, the catastrophic raid triggered the arrest and imprisonment of a lot of Spanish libertarians across France.

The crackdown was orchestrated from central police headquarters in the Rue Vauban, whose ill-repute dated back to the war years. Even though the police concentrated on the “action” groups, the newspapers and the Right pinned the blame on the MLE as a whole. And the crackdown began. The Bailo brothers’ family received its share: the partner of the sister Felisa received such a beating that his face swelled to twice its normal size: her other brother, Pascual, who has seen action with the Foreign Legion, was not only beaten but was placed, naked, in refrigerated rooms. Francisco’s wife was stripped naked, humiliated and tortured. For her part, Juan Sánchez’s sister Juana and her partner Alfonso, nick-named Borbón, were also picked up and mistreated as they were being linked with an arms cache turned up in a basement. They even burned Juana’s breasts with cigarettes; this in addition to other French police ploys. Also, in the Lyon area, Paco Pérez, García, Cayetano Zaplana, Juan del Amo (delegates from the libertarian organizations in exile) were arrested as were Valero and his wife. But it did not stop there: once they realized that Spanish anarchists had been behind the raid, they jumped on their chance and the repression spread like wildfire. Among others, those arrested included Marcelino Massana in Toulouse, Sabaté in Dijon, and Ramón Vila Capdevila in Font Romeu. The guide Jesús Martínez Maluenda was arrested for possessing a gun like the ones used in the hold-up and this caused him all manner of issues. Even outstanding opponents of Cerrada’s approach finished up in the cells under questioning. Peirats was subjected to all manner of abuse, but even then did not drop Laureano Cerrada in it. Other well-known names interrogated included José Pascual Palacios and Pedro Mateu.

As we stated earlier, we know the name of the members of the commando that carried out the Lyon hold-up, but who were these men? We shall now take a closer look at them. 

Let us begin with Francisco Bailo Mata, from Aragon; he was born in Leciñena in 1920. During the civil war in Spain he served as a militian with the Durruti Column and as part of its guerrilla teams. In February 1939 he crossed into France and, being a member of the 26th Division, was interned in the Le Vernet concentration camp. He enlisted in the French army and fought the Germans throughout the short time that the French managed to fend off the Teuton hordes. On 25 April 1941, he was deported to Germany and placed in the notorious Mauthausen camp; there he was stripped of his name and nationality, becoming simply Inmate 4216. In addition, they had him wear the blue triangle of the stateless with S signifying Rot Spanier (Spanish Red). In July 1945, which is to say more than four years after that two nurses called to the home of his sister, Felisa Bailo, to drop off someone who as incapable even of standing upright. That was what was left of Francisco following his long passage through the Nazi hell. As his sister declared: “The family and neighbours never once complained of his screaming night terrors; his insatiable thirst; his anxiety; his traumatic extravagances … he never received any psychological treatment as a victim.” Gradually, back in France, he rebuilt what he could of his life; he frequented libertarian circles and joined Cerrada’s groups. But at home, things did not go so well. He would spend lengthy periods of time chain-smoking and staring at the walls. Nightmares left him screaming in the dark and darting downstairs in terror. 

Such dreams persisted for more than a year. He was forever gulping down water, insatiably, right up until his death in 1986. Francisco was arrested in the Des Iris district on 1 February 1951. 

His brother, Jose, had been forced to flee Leciñena together with his mother and his sister Felisa. He was 10 years old when the town fell to Franco’s troops. From there they fled to Fraga before moving on to Barcelona. And to make matters worse, were there when the Francoists captured the city. They took to the roads again, heading north, to see whether they might secure some calm and tranquillity at last in France. They arrived at the border in dire circumstances, whereupon the French immediately placed them in the camps. They placed Felisa and their mother Justa in the Argelès camp, with 13 year-old José dispatched to the St Cyprien camp. He managed to get out of the camp when a French family took him in and, bad as things had been they were about to take a turn for the worse when the Nazis invaded France. Jose was soon acting as a runner for the Resistance and, shortly after that, took to the hills with them up until the end of the world war. Like his brother, Jose joined the action groups operating on French soil under the supervision of Laureano Cerrada Santos. In fact, he was in charge of the Lyon group. He took part in the Rue Duguesclin raid and allegedly, confronted with the mass round-ups and intense police search, took his own life by shooting himself in the head with his Colt rather than be taken by the police. Equally allegedly, he left behind a note written prior to his taking that fatal decision; it read: “I feel that there is nothing more that can be done and I have no desire to fight the police. Too much blood has been spilled already …” His body turned up on 4 February 1951 in the Vénissieux gardens in a Lyon suburb. 

The member of the gang about whom I have found the least information was Aragon-born Antonio Guardia Socada. Born in the Valderrobres area, he served with the Durruti Column before crossing into France with it and was interned in the Le Vernet camp. We know that after his release he lived, for a time at any rate, in Perpignan, at No 5, Boulevard Wilson to be precise. In February 1944 he was in the Pyrenees acting as guide for several RAF pilots and we can only suppose that it was as a result of that risky line of work that he wound up, not just under arrest, but also imprisoned in the Saint Gilles prison in Brussels. By August 1944, that prison held a further 1,500 political prisoners. On the night of 1 September, with freedom imminent, SS General Richard Jungclaus ordered the prison evacuated, with the inmates transported to Germany. The prisoners fought back, but had only their fists, so in the end, after severe punishment, they were herded on to lorries, dropped off at the Gare du Midi and loaded on to one of what were known as the “ghost trains”. The train was unable to leave until the following day, thanks to the obstructions raised and sabotage carried out by the Belgians, in addition to resistance by the deportees. It took the train 68 hours to cover the first 12 miles, what with red signal lights, other trains in the way and whatever else the resistance could devise. And then there was the water that the locomotive needed, so they had to spend the night in Malines. In the end, the train returned to Brussels on 3 September and on the 4th the Allies entered the Belgian capital, rescuing Antonio and his 1,500 comrades, among others. He later made his way to the capital of the Spanish exiles in France – Toulouse – where he settled down. Some time later he left there for Lyon to hold up the post office van. Many years later he was a member of the Amicale du Vernet (Le Vernet Old Comrades’ Association), regularly contributing to its costs, and after the death of Franco, he went back to his homeland, settling in Barcelona. 

Regarding Juan Sánchez, we have glimpses of his life, albeit few. Juan Sánchez aka el Pelao was born in Lorca in Murcia in 1914, into an anarchist family. Like many another libertarian militant, he had picked up in the unions and ateneos what he never learnt in school. He joined the CNT early at the instigation of his father and then joined the FAI off his own bat. At the beginning of the 1930s, the entire family moved away to France, to the city of Lyon-Villeurbanne. There was a very active group of Spanish libertarians there, economic migrants, and they joined them. In August 1936, after finding out what had happened back in Spain, they and some other comrades decided to pack their cases and join the fight. Juan also turned up in a number of collectives in Catalonia and Aragon after withdrawing from the fight as he regarded himself as an anti-militarist. That position may have been a result of the militarization of the militias, as was the case with many anarchists. During his time in Spain, he wrote for a number of CNT newspapers like Amanecer. After the defeat, he, like many others, crossed into exile in France. Like many another, he experienced his share of concentration camps and was later sent to perform slave labour in the Djelfa area in Algeria. He successfully escaped and eventually joined the Free French Forces. He turned up again in 1944 as a member of the Northern-Paris Regional Resistance, in which one of the stalwarts was Cerrada, known as “The Forger”. Alongside them on that resistance committee were several more men from the groups working alongside Laureano Cerrada. During his trial in 1955, it was stated that the members of the gang that carried out the hold-up in Lyon had been resistance members and in fact Sánchez was active in the Lyon area under the Nazi occupation, along with his sister Juana, and other libertarians from the La Barraca group. Juan Sánchez carried on crossing the border over the ensuing years, among other things to squeeze cash out of Catalan businessmen through the sale of CNT stamps. In the end, the Nazis lost the world war and a lot of people thought that Franco and his rule of terror were next on the list, so some entrepreneurs readily purchased those stamps, just in case things might change. Much of the information I possess regarding Juan was supplied to me by Aragon-born Isidoro Berdié who made his acquaintance in Sweden, where el Pelao found asylum after serving 15 years in French jails for the Lyon raid. They quickly became friends. Isidoro use to sleep in Juan’s home on visits to Sweden and vice versa when el Pelao visited his native soil. Juan was arrested on 30 January 1951, the very first member of the gang to fall into police hands.

The final member of the gang, Joan Català is a name that has cropped up frequently in this blog because, as we said earlier, he was one of the Ponzán Network’s guides and runners as well as an escape expert. During the civil war, he was a member of the Libertador group specializing in raids behind enemy lines, so I shall not dwell upon the details of his life, but those interested in him will find that his memoirs have been published in Catalan as well as in Spanish.

The outcome of it all was that the members of the raiding party and other activists were expelled from the MLE (Laureano Cerrada had been expelled a year earlier) and a maxi-trial held in 1955 and covered by the French and the Francoist press alike became the trial of the “Gang of Spaniards”. In the end, the trial ended with a death sentence passed on Juan Sánchez (this was later commuted); Francisco Bailo Mata and Antonio Guardia Socada received life sentences and Joan Català Balanyà a 20-year sentence. In case anyone has overlooked this detail, from then on and up until the creation of Defensa Interior 10 years later, the level of clandestine operations plummeted. 

El Salto, 29 August 2021.