‘Freedom has to be won, day by day,
in a ceaseless, uncompromising struggle’
Ramón Vila Capdevila (Peguera, 02/03/1908 – Casatellnou del Bages, 07/08/1963)
The years slip by and for some time I have been meaning to write something about Ramón Vila Capdevila and about his stunning activity within the French resistance, which is none too well known in Spain.
Ramón Vila Capdevila’s record as a fighter is without equal. From a very young age, he was active in the CNT and was jailed after the uprising in Fígols in 1932. During the Spanish civil war he enlisted as a volunteer with the Iron Column in Valencia and later served in the Tierra y Libertad Column where he was part of the guerrilla teams whose task it was to infiltrate behind enemy lines, with very specific assignments to carry out. When the war ended he left for exile in France at the time of the Retirada and like every other refugee knew hard times in the concentration camps (Saint Cyprien) and then in Argelès-sur-Mer from where he escaped in 1940 to go back to Spain to organize passage across the Pyrenees for wanted comrades and fugitives from the Nazis. In 1942, on one of his trips into France, he was arrested for possession of phoney papers and jailed in the ‘citadel’ in Perpignan; months after that he was conscripted into the Todt Organization and sent to work in a bauxite mine in the Hérault department. In 1944 he joined the Secret Army (AS). He came into contact with the ‘Irregulars and Partisans’ (Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, FTP), where Commandant Bernard put him in charge of a company of Spaniards, with the rank of captain. This caused some rumbles of discontent among the communists, who could not agree to be under the orders of an anarchist, although Ramón was by far the man best qualified for the post; the quibblers had no option but to go along with Commandant Bernard’s decision.
In the Haute Vienne, the fiefdom of the renowned Rochechouart maquis, Ramón Vila, or ‘Captaine Raymond’ commanded a company made up almost exclusively of libertarians and showed the Germans no mercy. A specialist in explosives, his daring and fearlessness led to his pulling off some real feats. In the entire resistance, Ramón’s unit was certainly the one that inflicted most losses on the occupation army in terms of personnel and materials.
Near Angoulême, they attacked a train filled with soldiers and equipment. Some time after that, the unit, made up of about two hundred men, repeated this, and on this occasion took hundreds of prisoners and recovered a significant batch of war materials. A third large-scale operation had a dramatic finale. This was the blowing of a bridge near Saint-Junien (Haute Vienne) when a train loaded with troops from the SS ‘Das Reich’ Panzer Division, one of the most fanatical and brutal black-shirted divisions, was destroyed. The retaliation decided by SS General Heinz Lammerding were chilling: the populace of Oradour-sur-Glane was massacred (the original village targeted, Oradour-sur-Vayres, having been spared due to a mix-up of the two Oradours). Some 642 civilians were murdered – 190 men, 245 women and 207 children – burnt alive in the church; 24 of these were Spaniards.
When news broke of the massacre in Oradour, Ramón and his men with the assent of former Captain Marc of the AS mounted a reprisal attack on the Das Reich division stationed in Oradour-sur-Vayres, which was wiped out.
Once France had been liberated, the French government offered Ramón the medal of the Legion of Honour in recognition of his outstanding actions in the resistance, but Ramón turned it down.
He then embarked upon a fight against Francoism in Spain. Alone or in the company of others he set about dynamiting the high-tension electricity pylons. Later, he joined with Marcelino Massana Bancells’s group, which is where I made his acquaintance, in the Santa Euginia (Can Moreno) base in Berga. He was recovering from bullet wounds sustained in a clash he had had with the Civil Guards.
In late 1949, by which point the libertarian guerrillas operating in Catalonia had been virtually wiped out, there were a few survivors carrying on the fight. Ramón was one such die-hard fighter, the one who held out the longest: he stayed up in the hills until he was killed at the age of 55, in 1963.
Ramón survived on what little help the peasants supplied him and on his French resistance pension. Using that money, he bought gear for blowing up electricity pylons and still had enough left over to meet his personal needs, which were minimal. And so, as the years passed, Ramón turned into a solitary tough nut. Pedro Sánchez was his last travelling companion and he shared that ‘hermit-like’ existence with Ramón.
Pedro Sánchez was war disabled, having been wounded on the Belchite front (Zaragoza): an exploding bomb left him with head injuries (leading to complications) and the fingers of his left hand had been amputated. Arrested in 1962 and given a 30-year prison term, he was accused of having helped Ramón to blow up a number of electricity pylons.
I made Pedro’s acquaintance in Burgos prison. I asked him: ‘How was Ramón when you parted ways in 1962?’ ‘Very bad’, he replied. This was his way of saying that Ramón had spent many years cut off from the world and bereft of the most basic comforts; living out in the open for so long a time, Ramón was afflicted with rheumatism and tremendous physical fatigue. Pedro’s remarks struck me as rather logical.
Inevitably, Ramón came to grief in a clash with three Civil Guards with whom he crossed paths as night was falling – a sergeant (first class) Jerónimo Bernal Mateos, formerly of the division, and officers Evangelista Fernández and Anacleto Adeva – on 7 August 1963 and took two bullets. The first hit the veins in his neck and the other his femoral artery. Not until daylight came did they make any attempt to approach Ramón’s body. Five hours, Ramón spent bleeding out on the ground and he died from lack of assistance, as the pathologist Dr José María Reguant himself was to declare at a seminar.
We can see that when gunned down he was wearing a wind-cheater and dark blue trousers and, among other personal items inside his knapsack was a sleeping-bag, a transistor radio, a watch, a change of trousers, some socks, a razor and some sabotage gear, etc.
Ramón died the death he had foretold. He used to say: ‘I’ll die alone like a stray dog’ and on him they found a number of verses which have been amended to make the following poem, which, in my view, encapsulates his personality to perfection:
I want my grave
Well away from holy ground
Where there are no white shirts
Nor gilded pantheons
I want them to bury me
Far away from those phoney places
Which folk visit yearly
To let loose their sobbing.
I want them to bury me
Way up in the high mountains
Alongside the tall pine tree
That stands alone in the gully
I want my grave to lie
Between two stone slabs
My companions will be the mottled snakes and green lizards
I do not want any priests attending my burial,
Be they secular or Roman.
And, as for flowers,
a bunch of stinging nettles.
Nor do I want anyone showing up
To make speeches or sing psalms
With flags and tinsel
The vice of the civilized world.
The cawing of the crows and rooks
And the howl of the old fox
Abandoned when he gets old
Will be speeches enough for me.
No lights and no candles
With their flashes of terror.
My light will be provided
By the flashes and the lightning.
I want my grave
Covered in tall thorns
Big, thick, brambles
Gorse and wild thistles.
Let grass for livestock
Grow all around me and
Let the weary black dog
Rest in my shade.
I want my body
To be laid to rest far from the human hubbub
Beside the tall pine that stands
In the lonely gully.
Former maquisard sentenced to death by a Summary Council of War, later commuted to 30 years in prison, of which he served 20 years and 6 days.
3 July 2018
1 ‘Wiped out’ presumably refers to a part of the Division
2 Presumably a reference to the Blue Division (Spanish fascists fighting on the Eastern Front).
Translated by: Paul Sharkey.