Santos Cortes, Militiaman, ever at the ready

This “rebel without a pause”, though not without a cause, took part in, among other things, the Spanish Civil War battles of Jarama, Brunete, Guadalajara and the Ebro, four of the fiercest battles. In all of them this Madrid native from the Tetuan barrio, a friend and “connection” of Cipriano Mera, was on the winning side. At the age of 15 and in command of a Maxim machine-gun, he witnessed a shell kill the other three members of the team feeding the gun, decapitating one of them.

For three years, aged just 15, this now 91 year old native of Madrid, full of energy and romance, a libertarian fighter to the death, restless and helpful, served in the trenches and on the busiest fronts in the war against fascism, in charge of a Maxim gun.

He admits to us that he has no idea how many of the enemy he killed … “because it’s hard to see the ‘other side’ from behind a machine-gun at distance … but I never ever shot an an enemy who put up his hands and surrendered to us.”

CNT: What age were you when the war started?

A. I had turned 15 just 4 months earlier, on 10 March 1936.

Q, And how did you come to know the CNT?

A. That was through Cipriano Mera.

Q. Tell us something about how you came to join, which union, if you attended meetings, when and so on.

A. I joined in 1935. We had a local in Madrid’s Calle de la Luna. We would meet up from time to time, but that was so long ago and I was so young then that I can’t remember much. My main involvement was through the Libertarian Youth, in cultural activities and attending meetings.

Q. How were things in society prior to the war?

A. Extremely touch and go. There was no schooling. Work was really lousy. Living conditions really dire.

Q. You were on friendly terms with Ciriano Mera. How did you make his acquaintance?

A. I was pretty friendly with Mera; we were like family, living on the same street, the Calle Lepanto. My parents were very great friends of his. And Cipriano’s maternal uncle, Agustin Nieto, was married to my father’s sister.

Q. What was Cipriano like?

A. He was a pure anarcho-syndicalist. Very obstinate and very responsible. Really sound.

Q. Then the war broke out. Which company were you with?

A. I had lots of postings, but let me be brief: I started out with the Confederal Militias, serving in Somosierra, Sotillo de la Adrada, Casas Viejas, Sesena, Cebreros in the Cerro Garabitas, Puente de San Fernando (the latter part of the defence of Madid) from late October into November 1936.

Later, in January ‘37, I was with Cipriano Mera’s 70th Mixed Brigade. That February there was the battle of Jarama and I served with the 4th Machine-gun Battalion, all of these being CNT units.

After Jarama, that March, I fought in the battle of Guadalajara. That is where I turned 16, taking part in the capture of the Ibarra Palace in Brihuega and later served in the Alto Tajuna, in the battle of Abanades, Villanueva de la Canada and later in the battle of Brunete in July 1937. I took a wound in the left leg there, fracturing my tibia and Achilles tendon.

In January 1938 I applied for a discharge, but they were reluctant to give it to me because my injury had not cleared up yet, so they had me sign a piece of paper for “voluntary discharge”. That February I was posted to the XIIIth International Brigade, to the 49th Machine-Gun Battalion, serving in the retreat from Aragon. I turned 17 in Caspe. It fell to El Campesino’s 101st Brigade and to us of the XIIIth to defend Lerida in May 1938 as part of the Balaguer bridgehead operation. The battle of the Ebro was on July 25. I crossed the Ebro at Asco, by boat, with the XIIIth International Brigade.

Later, on 1 October ‘38, the Internationals were pulled out, leaving just us Spanish members of the Brigade. We took part in the withdrawal from Catalonia in January 1939.

On 10 February 1939 we crossed the French border, heading for the concentration camps.

Q. What was the atmosphere like in the front lines?

A. I had no problems getting on with people. We fighting men always stuck by each other.

Q. Can you recall any particular anecdote?

A. Several. For one thing, when my brigade, the 70th Mixed Brigade, were seconded to Lister’s 11th Division in the battle of Jarama. The political commissar, Santiago Alvarez, asked me my age and when I told him I was 15 his reaction annoyed me. So I told him that “no one asks your age when it’s your turn to die.”

Again: before we crossed the Ebro, Major Taguena spotted that I was recovering from an injury sustained in Brihuega. He asked me about it and I replied that I had left hospital uncured and would have it looked at whenever I could.

Q. You were in the battles of Jarama, Brunete, Guadalajara and the Ebro. Could you tell us something of what the fighting was like?

A. Jarama was a really tough battle. My brigade overran the village facing the Alto de Pingarron where the Francoist army, its elite troops, was really solidly dug in. It took a lot of guts to be able to climb the slopes of Pingarron. Every time we tried it, our surge ended with about 50% losses. Later, the weather proved a real problem: we were short of water, of warm clothing and many died due to lack of medical assistance …

In Brunete the heat was main factor in the battle; that and shortage of water. The battle was a tough one, as were they all. We lost half our Brigade. I was the only one of our 4-man machine-gun crew to survive.

I turned 16 during the battle of Guadalajara. Of all the battles I took part in, Guadalajara was the one in which I suffered least. In terms of the war, it was a very significant success as far as morale and the People’s Army were concerned. We took loads of prisoners and captured a lot of Italian equipment.

I found every battle really testing. Starting with the Ebro and 113 days of fighting, the defence of Madrid, the battle of Jarama … Too complicated to be able to say.

I served in the machine-gun section throughout the war. A rifleman fights an entirely different battle.

Q. And how were relations between the various ideologies?

A. I spent most of the war in elite communist brigades such as Lister’s 11th Division and with the XIIIth International Brigade, but I never had any run-ins with them on the front lines. The important thing, to me, was winning battles.

Q. Was the atmosphere in the front lines different from that in the rearguard

A. We always stood by one another in the front lines, but it was a very different story in the rearguard. My organisation was locked in a fight to the death with the communists.

Q. What was war-time Madrid like … with the air raids, the food question, the atmosphere in the barrios?

A. There was a lot of 5th Column activity and some people (my family for instance) endured a lot of hunger. But I can’t say too much there because I never returned to Madrid after playing my part in the defence.

Q. Did you experience the fall of Madrid at first hand?

A. No. By that time I was in the St Cyprien concentration camp in the eastern Pyrenees in France. But I was not taken by what Cipriano did in allying himself with Casado … [note: Alarmed by the irreversible tide of Francoist victories, loss of Catalonia and failure of so many republican political/military leaders to make their way back to the greatly truncated Republic (Madrid-Alicante) to carry on the war, plus the appearance of an internal communist coup within the republican camp (massive promotions of CP personnel to positions of command and authority), a school of thought emerged within the republican armed forces that thought of victory should be abandoned in favour of the prospect of an honourable settlement that might spare lots of lives. Casado was the figurehead for this pre-emptive counter-coup against Negrin and the CP in March 1939. Mera and his Army Corps did much of the fighting to snuff out the communist resistance. Franco by that point had no need to negotiate terms and refused to entertain anything but unconditional surrender. The Negrin government failed to hire/ensure enough ships to evacuate the republic’s troops, thousands being trapped in Alicante waiting for evacuation ships that never came.]

Q. What happened after that?

A. Well, I was out of Spain from 10 February 1939 until October 1943.

Q. What consequences flowed from your part in the Spanish Revolution? What was it like in the concentration camp and in exile?

A. As I said, in February 1939 we crossed the border into exile. I took it very badly as all losers do. But let me amend that word “exile”. In theory, all of us who crossed the border became political “exiles”. But the actuality was very different. We were treated as prisoners. They collected us together on a beach, exposed to the elements, surrounded by Senegalese soldiers. For a fortnight, the only food we received was a kilo of bread. Many of us were wounded but we received no medical attention. Broadly speaking, we were treated very badly.

From: cnt (Madrid) No 391, July 2012. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.