Paradox: Anti-Militarist, yet Fought in Three Wars

Paradox: Anti-Militarist, yet Fought in Three Wars

Today we look at the stories of men and women who fought in the civil war and later against the Nazis in France and then crossed the border to take part in the guerrilla war against Franco.

Today we devote our article to a special group. Many of these people never even knew one another, but they were the ones who refused to bow the head, the ones who refuse to have their arms twisted, the ones that fought against hell and high water, who were unbreakable.

We shall follow in the footsteps of the ones that fought fascism from 1936 onwards, in the civil war, even though most of them openly professed to be anti-militarists. Having lost that war, with all of the suffering and misfortunes it brought them, they went into exile and without a short time of their being interned in France, they found themselves being drawn into a brand-new war. And not a minor one, either. It was a world war, but as far as this band of be-sandaled soldiers or militians were concerned, it was the same old same old, the fight against fascism. Furthermore, the new German Nazi enemy was familiar to them from Spain. True, this was a war that differed from the one before it and the difference between them was not negligible. What changed was that this was a clash that they won.

And then, after those two wars and nearly a decade of fighting, rather than retreating into family life and rest, they went back over the border and embarked upon their third war. Tougher, lonelier, and, if anything, harsher; this band of die-hards oiled their weapons again and threw themselves back into the fight against Franco and the Falange.

South of the Pyrenees, it was all persecution, harassment, violence, mercilessness and fear. Slandered by the enemy and, sometimes, by their own trade unions or parties, which would eventually wash their hands of their unequal struggle. Many of the die-hards perished in a variety of Francoist prisons, or spilled their blood in nameless hills or obscure village and city backstreets.

The better to place them in context, we will need to offer a few more details about these people. For one thing, the age of the participants: not too young to have taken part in the civil war, nor too old to fight Francoism in the 1940s and 1950s. A certain proximity either to the border with France when they crossed into exile, or access to boats in the Cantabrian Sea to get them to France, or, in the Mediterranean, to make it to Africa. Later, there were the post-WW2 crossing points. Many of the groups had been involved either in the cross-Pyrenean invasions in ’44-’45, or in the groups operating in Catalonia, preferably in the capital. And a special mention goes out to those groups who made it their business to smuggle people in the 1940s, especially during the years of Nazi occupation, operating on the French as well as on the Spanish side of the border.

Let us identify among the vast majority of guerrillas all those people dedicated to acting as guides or go-betweens, not forgetting much-needed forgers, not to mention doctors, plus, naturally, the numbers of women involved. Thus far the only one of the latter mentioned has been Julia Hermosilla, but I have every intention of delving deeper into memory so that more female names can be added to hers.

Here goes with the stories of a few of these people:

If we have to began, let us start with those who made the Pyrenees their home. The smuggler teams, trekking mostly northwards or mostly southwards, depending on the times, but at all times keeping the Pyrenean paths to freedom open. The best known among them would have been the people-smugglers of the Ponzán Network, among them José Borrás Cascarosa, former Durruti Column militiaman; as part of the Network, he fought the Nazis and Francoists alike. Amadeo Casares Colomer aka Peque (I do not know what unit he served in during the civil war) was not only an effective smuggler for the Network, but married that to his activities as a forger acting on its behalf. Victorio Castán Guillén aka Reyes was another of Ponzán’s prominent collaborators. He served as a militiaman with the Carod-Ferrer Column and later the 25th Division. Another of those who was to fight hard on both sides of the border. And what can we say about Joan Catalá Balanya that has not already been said. A member of the ‘Libertador’ guerrilla group operating behind the Francoist lines, he had previously been a militiaman with the Durruti Column. An incorrigible escaper. While working for the Ponzán Network, he was arrested 4 times and escaped 4 times. He would even turn up in the 1950s in the action groups operating in France, most particularly in the notorious hold-up in Lyon in January 1951. Gregorio Castanera Mateo lost brothers who were shot by the Francoists while he was fighting on the Aragon front. During the Second World War, he was in charge of Ponzán’s Perpignan staging-point, crucial to the arrangements for border crossings. Josep Ester Borras aka Minga had been a militiaman with the Tierra y Libertad Column, as had lots of the inhabitants of the Upper Llobregat valley. From 1940 he fought in the resistance, either as part of the ‘Liberté’ Group or as a smuggler and go-between for the Ponzán Network. He finished up in Mauthausen like so many of his political persuasion but was lucky enough to survive the experience. Manolo Huet Piera aka Murciano’s roots were in the FAI action groups; initially he was with the columns that set off for the Aragon front and later he served with the 7th Transport Battalion. In exile, he worked with the escape lines, initially with the Belgian ‘Combat’ line and later with the Ponzán network. He was in charge of the latter’s maritime branch, which evacuated nearly 800 people. He went to fight on the streets of Paris during the liberation of the city. After that he worked with Sabaté’s group and even crossed the border with a group of his own in the late 1940s. His group was one of the ones tasked with securing arms in France for the libertarian guerrilla war.

Eduardo José Esteve and the brothers Eusebio and Pascual López Lagüarta (aka Coteno and Sixto respectively) were people-smugglers and worked blithely on either side of the border. Eusebio fought in the 82nd Brigade during the civil war, whilst both brothers were part of the guerrillas who served in the ‘Libertador’ group. The man in charge of that group was the Huesca schoolteacher Francisco Ponzán Vidal aka Vidal, who also ran the escape line that bore his name. Not only did they help to smuggle out Jews, airmen or resistance personnel, but they busied themselves counterfeiting references and orchestrating the escape of libertarian personnel from Franco’s camps and prisons, smuggling action groups or anti-Francoist propaganda into Spain. Ponzán was a real headache for the Gestapo in France and for the Francoists in Spain. Ponzán was shot and his corpse burned near Toulouse a few days prior to the Liberation. And to round off the members of his network operating on both sides of the border, we must not forget Joaquín Querol Marzá, Agustín Remiro Manero and Juan Zafón Bayo aka Zapata. During the civil war, these men had, respectively, served in the Iron Column and later in the Durruti Column, in Joaquín’s case; in the C Machine-gunners’ Battalion in the case of Remiro (it was also a guerrilla battalion) and, in Zafón’s case, in the Ortiz Column. Querol served for a time as a guerrilla in the Valencia area, whilst Remiro was not resting on his laurels and was arrested in Portugal, deported to Spain and, following an escape bid, was finished off by the Caudillo’s goons. Zafón would also turn up in the liberation of Paris, making his contribution.

Looking beyond the Ponzán Network, there are further diehards to be found. Pedro Adrover Font aka Yayo had been a Los Aguiluchos militiaman and turned up a short while later in the ranks of the resistance. Arrested by the Gestapo, he was dispatched to the awful camps in Germany. Freed by the Allies, he promptly made his way back to Barcelona to join the action groups there. Arrested during the late 1949 crackdown, he was eventually shot in 1952.

Jaume Amorós Vidal aka Liberto served in the youth battalions towards the end of the civil war. In France, he fought in the ranks of the libertarian groups operating in the Haute Garonne and, once the Nazis had been defeated, he joined the teams of CNT guides operating in the Catalan Pyrenees.

Laureano Cerrada Santos fought on the streets of Barcelona before taking charge of the Catalan railroads as well as being seriously involved with armoured trains. In exile, he built up a resistance network specializing in two areas. On the one hand there was document forgery and, on the other, thievery from and raids upon German powder stores with an eye to arming, first, the resistance and, later, the libertarian guerrillas. When the world war ended, he kept up his counterfeiting apparatus and committed himself heart and soul to equipping the libertarian guerrilla effort with bases, arms, cash and documents, as well as hatching plans to attempt Franco’s life.

Ramón Claret Gual began his armed career with the Taverner Column and later with the 71st Division. After the civil war was lost, he left for exile, where he joined the French resistance. At the same time, he set up an anti-Francoist group that busied itself partly with extorting businessmen in Catalonia and partly with setting up the support infrastructures for the guerrilla groups in Barcelona city.

Vicente Ferrer Pascual served in the Durruti Column, rising to the rank of captain in the wake of militarization. He commanded an FFI group within the French resistance and later, once the Nazis had been defeated, he joined the CNT guide service operating between France and Catalonia, from his home in Perpignan.

Julia Hermosilla Sagredo is the sole woman who will feature in today’s article, unfortunately. I hope to unearth others. She joined the CNT at the age of 14 and fought on the northern front with the CNT battalions. During the air raid on Ochandiano her eardrums burst, leaving her severely but temporarily deaf. After she crossed into exile, she worked with the escape lines as well as with CNT resistance groups in Buzy. Taking on the Nazis. When the Nazis had been defeated, she operate as a people-smuggler via the Guipúzcoa area, whilst also playing a part in the plans to assassinate Franco in San Sebastián. In the abortive airborne assassination bid, she and her partner monitored events from a boat near Spanish waters. In the Ayete Palace assassination plan, in the 1960s, she worked with Defensa Interior and played an important role in the mounting of that attempt to end the dictator’s life.

Domingo Ibars Jaunías aka Roset was with the 213rd Brigade by the end of the civil war. In 1940 he was in the train station in Hendaye with Desiderio López, but they were unable to get close either to Franco or to Hitler. Ibars was a member of the Puig Group along with 35 other libertarians fighting the Germans in the Nièvre area. He later joined the action groups – Juan Cazorla’s group, for one – being smuggled through to Barcelona. Arrested during the 1949 crackdown, he was given a death sentence which was later commuted to a lengthy prison term. 

We turn now to two vital individuals. They shared the same profession, the health profession, being doctors. They were friends and worked together on a number of occasions. Josep Pujol Grua served in the Roja y Negra Column during the civil war, whereas Joaquím Trías Pujol was commander-in-chief of the Army of the East, no less. They were both active inside the French concentration camps, tending to their countrymen there. Later, they were both trusted doctors for the resistance when their services were needed. Once the world war was over, these two doctors were again to surface in Barcelona, treating libertarian guerrillas during the time they spent in the city.

Miguel Quintana aka Perolero, for all his libertarian activism, served in the Karl Marx Division during the civil war. That war having been lost, he left for exile. Following the Nazi take-over of France, he joined the maquis group of the libertarian Manuel Serrano operating in the Lodève area. He later set up a support base for libertarian guerrillas adjacent to the border and was active in cooperation with the Catalan guerrillas. As an amusing anecdote, he called a strike during the shooting of the Ken Loach movie Land and Freedom, insisting on better working conditions while he was acting in it.

Another who happened to have fought alongside the communists during the civil war was Luciano Torrontegui Mechanca aka Luis Torres who served in Líster’s Division. During the world war, he served in the Libertad Battalion and later went on to join a team of guides in the Basque Country, as well as belonging to a libertarian guerrilla group based in Urepel.

Ramón Vila Capdevila aka Pasoslargos we have encountered before in relation to the Upper Llobregat revolt back in 1932. He was serving time in San Miguel de los Reyes prison when the Iron Column set the inmates loose. And he fought in that column right up until it was militarized. In France he not only worked with the Buckmaster network but joined the Rochechouart maquis and later moved on to the Libertad Battalion. From mid-1945 onwards he joined the Catalan action groups, operating either as a saboteur or acting as a guide for them. He was gunned down by the Civil Guard in August 1963.

José María Villegas Izquierdo served in the Durruti Column during the civil war. After crossing into France, he joined the libertarian groups operating in the Haute Garonne and after the end of the World War, he turned up in José Pareja’s group, assassinating the police plant Eliseo Melis in 1947, among other things.

Well, there we have it, our first instalment. That leaves the rest of the participants in the escape lines, members of groups like Sabaté’s or Facerías’s, or the large group that took part in cross-Pyrenean invasions …  but more of them anon.

Image: Francisco Ponzán and part of his team of smugglers in the early 40s (Imanol).

From: (El Salto, 22 May 2020).