The Libertador (Liberator) Group, specializing in operations behind enemy lines, intelligence-gathering or sabotage attacks
Greetings, readers. Here we are again at the opening of 2023, still plugging away at the same old topics. In a previous entry I spent my time saying something about the guerrilla groups operating under the aegis of some of the anarchist columns that took part in the civil war. Today, let me zero in on one of these. When you see the folk who staffed it, the names will ring a bell. For those who follow this blog on a more or less regular basis, as I mention names like Joan Català, the López Laguarta brothers or Francisco Ponzán, you will know that these are not unknowns as they have cropped up in several of the articles that I have been posting.
So for now let us look a little further back in time, shifting our focus away from the renowned Ponzán network and going further back, into its origins, looking at the group in embryo. Let us look away from French soil and head back to the place where most of our protagonists were born, to wit, Aragon.
Today we are going to follow the trail of the Libertador group.
For openers, we should state that the Libertador group came into being long before Ponzán became a member of it. In the wake of the chaos following the early days of the war, after the fall of one of the major strongholds of anarchism in Spain, namely, Zaragoza, the group was set up in August 1936, if we go by the written account of its own members and its number one purpose was to rescue people in difficulty and rescue militants from behind enemy lines. We find its members involved in rescue operations carried out in places such as Botaya, La Peña, Triste or Fontellas. Nor was Zaragoza spared from their visits; thus, during the final week of 1936, over three separate incursions, they managed to evacuate a total of 72 people from the Aragonese capital, people ranging in age from the elderly down to minors.
Of course there was more to it than that, Liberating and evacuating people was just part of its purpose. But there were others too. They soon started exploiting their clandestine raids behind the enemy lines in other to gather intelligence, noting troop numbers and movements, armaments, storage depots, arsenals, etc. anything that might be of use. They also added to their repertoire the taking of prisoners as that was another means of collecting intelligence. From what little detail we have regarding that time, we know that on 6 November 1936, members of the group blew up the Falcino bridge between Mediana and Belchite and in order to do so had to raid more than 20 kilometers behind the Francoist lines, or, in April 1937 there was a sabotage attack that cut the railway line between Zaragoza and Canfranc out by Los Mallos de Riglos. Train traffic was interrupted for at least 28 days. During its first year’s operations, the Libertador group slipped behind the enemy lines 44 times, no more, no less.
In the summer of 1937, they were absorbed into the SIEP (Special Long-range Intelligence Service) one of the first serious attempts on the republican government’s part to set up a spy agency operating behind the enemy lines. It is worth saying that initially the SIEP was none too operational because it lacked personnel trained in such tasks. And it should also be stated that the Libertador group, when assigned to that agency, was drawn from the libertarian columns, and not from the much trumpeted People’s Army being hailed by the PCE. Now that we mention it, the PCE was on the look-out for likely members of the party who might be trained whereas the Libertador group mounted upwards of 40 missions into enemy territory. And as mentioned in our last entry, most of the libertarian columns had similar groups. Yet if we read the history books, we find the guerrillas and the infiltration groups as being the PCE’s idea and accomplishment. I shall leave to each of you to draw your own conclusions.
In August 1937, during the republican offensive designed to capture Zaragoza and albeit that this has gone down in the record as the “battle of Belchite”, the Libertador group mounted lots of raids behind the enemy lines, raids primarily dedicated to sabotage attacks.
Also that August, the PCE broke up the Council of Aragon by force of arms and dismantled its collectives. Ponzan was obliged to seek refuge with the 127th Brigade (formerly the Roja y Negra column) where he had many friends, unless he wanted to risk capture or the firing squad. And it was there that he came into contact with the rest of the Libertador group. At the time, it was made up of the brothers Faustino and Juan Manuel Barrabés Asún, brothers Pascual and Eusebio López Laguarta, Benito Lasvacas Coronas, Eduardo Santolaria Ferrer, Prudencio Iguacel Piedrafita and Manuel Sus Dieste, all of them members of the CNT. Plus three UGT members, Ángel Beltrán Calvo, Ángel Cabrero Callau and Lorenzo Otal Biela. Plus Paco Ponzán, who reported to the high command for the Libertador group.
When reassigned to the SIEP, the group’s modus operando underwent a slight adjustment A document exists wherein the SIEP stated that it was depending on their support but was agreeing to certain conditions. From then on, they generally made their sorties in pairs and if sabotage was the intention, they would take a bunch of guerrillas from the division with them. And we have details of some of those sabotage operations: On 1 December 1937 a range of sabotage attacks was mounted on railways and roads near Ayerbe, during which a scout car was blown up; on 22 January 1938, the rail lines between Turuñana and Huesca were sabotaged and the Aniés to Bolea road was sabotaged too. Come the retreat into Catalonia, in early April 1938, the Benabarre to Arén road was sabotaged.
XX Army Corps
Using every means at your disposal, see to it that you make a prisoner, an officer or NCO if possible, from among the forces that the enemy has positioned on Hill 1421 in the sector covered by this Division.
To that end you are to make immediate contact with the Intelligence Officer and Commander of this Division to get them to furnish you with the requisite weaponry, munitions and personnel.
Once the prisoner has been taken, he is to be delivered without delay to this Command Post.
This mission should be carried out on the night of the 4th inst.
This very night you are to send two of the agents under your command to this Command Post to cross into the Republic of Andorra in order to carry out the assignment set out by this Command.
Let it be clear that one of those agents should have flawless knowledge of Catalan or French.
I would remind you of the daily need that, before 13.00 hours each day, you should send the car at your disposal to pick up the dispatches from the Officer from the 24th Division whilst at the same time forwarding your own.
Not that the Libertador group operated solely behind the enemy lines. When Ponzán found out that his friend and collaborator Juan Zafón, who had been arrested by Líster, was about to be tried, he made arrangements for Zafón’s escape, which was a success. Years later Zafón would be a stalwart of the Maritime Branch of the Ponzán network in France.
On occasion the group’s reports were rejected or belittled by the high command. For instance, on 22 March 1938, the commander of the 31st Division was briefed that the enemy was about to launch a fresh offensive in northern Aragon. Faced with that officer’s dereliction, Ponzán insisted that he give a signed receipt for its reports, something that the commander in question did. The offensive was launched at 7.00 a.m. the very next day.
As might be expected, the make-up of the group was not always the same and over time it was joined by fresh personnel as it moved from place to place. After the collapse of the Aragon front and its transfer to Catalonia, it was joined by brand new guides, including one old acquaintance, Joan Català Balanya. We have mentioned him in previous entries on the Ponzán network as well as in relation to the Lyon hold-up; he was an expert mountain guide and a high-level escape artist. And in addition to Català we know of the parts played by Alfonso Montané, Ángel Faurat (both from the town of Sort), José Ciprés ‘Sarramián’ and Manuel Rodríguez Gasa.
The group was on the move. After quitting Aragon, it moved to Tremp and was forced to fall back from there to Sort. From Sort it moved on to Viella where they were involved in a convoluted episode that ended with them behind bars and awaiting execution. Luckily, a timely warning prompted intervention by Lieutenant-Colonel Gómez García, who pulled their chestnuts out of the fire. From the Arán valley they relocated to Gerona, via Toulouse. Eventually, the Libertador group resumed its mission, but from a base in La Seo de Urgell this time.
That brings us to May 1938, at which point Joan Català and others arrived to join the group. In fact, Català mentions that the group was 16-men strong when he joined it.
It would take too long to list all the missions carried out by the group behind enemy lines, so what I will do is include one of the reports drawn up by Ponzán, the originals of which have luckily survived. Anyone really interested in them can read them by going to the CRAI archive in Barcelona. Let this one be a sampler and an invitation to further exploration.
Report submitted by the Libertador group, attached to the 127th Mixed Brigade, to the Head of Intelligence, Army of the East
This Group, established in August 1936 at the instigation of its own members, being made up of between eight and ten comrades:
In January of this year and up until late March, it was under the control of the Aragon Headquarters (in Sariñena) – Secret Service. Since then and to date, it has been under the control of the Commander of the 127th Brigade.
SERVICES RENDERED: Enemy territory was penetrated forty-four times with whatever intelligence it was able to gather being forwarded to the Command, with the bulk of its efforts being directed into the liberation of antifascist comrades.
On a fair number of occasions, acts of sabotage were carried out, some of which, like the one mounted in April against the Zaragoza to Canfranc rail line at Los Mallos de Rigols, causing damage that hindered the normal rail traffic for twenty-eight days; TWO HUNDRED men and two concrete-laying machines being deployed by the rebels on a daily basis on repairs.
At the behest of the Lieutenant Commander of the I Army Corps’s Intelligence Services we submitted the following suggestions:
1. That all of the members of the Group, because of their love for the antifascist cause, are keen to collaborate loyally in anything that might be to the enemy’s detriment, whilst seeking no material recompense for themselves.
2. Wish to stay on with the Brigade to which they are attached, whilst performing whatever service may be assigned to them, as often as may be required.
3. The better to carry out their work, they require:
a) Papers for all of its members: 1 captain’s papers, 2 lieutenants’, 2 sergeants’ and 5 privates’. Such papers will allow them to circulate freely through loyalist territory and to possess whatever weapons (automatics, explosives, etc.) they need the better to carry out their mission. Plus such other papers as may assist them in entering enemy territory without let or hindrance.
b) Funding in cash or rebel currency such as might allow them to cover the costs incurred in the movements of the liaisons they may install in enemy territory, as well as easing the latter’s financial straits, since the majority of them belong to the working class.
c) Automatic weapon: ten pistols, eight Parabellums and two machine-guns, with plentiful ammunition. – If possible, a recoilless rifle and small machine-gun such as the ones in the possession of the International Group currently based in Barbastro which was involved in conjunction with us in the attempted sabotage of the Carcavilla depot.
d) A light, seven-seater car.
e) Three transmitters with a range of 40 kms, the aim being to establish daily, coded communications with couriers inside enemy territory.
f) The most inclusive and detailed maps available of Huesca and Zaragoza provinces. – Protective clothing against inclement weather (chiefly rain and snow). Two sets of binoculars and a high-resolution camera. – Uniforms and insignia.
4. At all times the Group is to report on the movements of each of its members and will, on each occasion, indicate place of residence, providing immediate notification in the event of any change to same.
5. Be it noted that whilst wishing to belong to the Brigade, the aim is to ensure at all times that the work in which the Group is engaged does not become known through any contacts that the rebels may have, as this would entail reprisal actions targeting the families of its members, virtually all of whom live inside enemy territory, so that we may be under the supervision of the Higher Army Departments engaged in this task.
This is being made known for appropriate action and in search of a written response to these requests. – All correspondence and formal contact with the Group is to be handled by Captain Benito Lasvacas, whose signature is appended to this document, or by whomsoever he may assign to it.
Callen, 21 August 1937
And to round off the story of the Libertador group, let it be stated that in the midst of the retreat from Catalonia, and on nearing the border, they spent their time gathering up short arms, storing them in dumps and burying them near the border for later use. As to when, where and against whom that use would be remained to be seen. As you will have guessed, these were the weapons used by the Ponzán network a few months later on, once it was up and running on the French side of the border, but that, dear friends, as they usually say in the movies, is another story …
1, ‘Scout car’, for ‘máquina exploradora’ literally ‘exploring machine’
2, The CRAI can be found at https://crai.ub.edu/en/about-crai/libraries/pavello-republica
[Image: Cover of the Service Book of the Libertador group, in the handwriting of Ponzán himself. Source: Imanol]
Translated by: Paul Sharkey.