In France

Of the half million Spaniards who took refuge in France during the last months of the Civil War, more than half returned after the first few months. The total number of those who stayed, no matter what the conditions, ranged from 140,000 to 250,000 according to the authors. Another 12,000 remained in French North Africa.

In the «compagnies de prèstataires étrangers»

A decree of the French government of April 1939 established that foreign refugees between the ages of 20 and 48 were to provide benefits equivalent to the time that French citizens spent in military service. A report prepared for the Ministry of War put the 230,000 Spaniards mobilized at the height of this decree. Thus began the creation of companies of foreign workers, militarized units integrated by about 250 men and captained by French officers of the reserve. Although in each prefecture a list of the most necessary actions in the field of infrastructures was initially drawn up, these companies began to perform tasks related to French national defense, such as the construction of defensive works at the borders and military camps. Until the beginning of World War II it is estimated that the number of Spaniards incorporated into these companies was 20,000.

As of September 1939, after the general mobilization, the enrollment of foreigners in these units became mandatory. By December 15, 102 foreign borrowing companies (some 25,500 men) had been allocated to the army, which increased to 180 by the end of that month. The Spaniards were by far the largest national contingent for what was often cited in official documents as “Spanish workers’ companies.”

In the North of Africa, twelve companies of smaller numbers were organized than the metropolitan ones and that they were grouped in the 8th Regiment of Foreign Workers. In April 1940 there were about 2,500 men distributed between Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

But not all played a military role. By February 1940, when the French authorities had withdrawn the status of refugees from Spaniards still residing in the country, the foreign workers’ companies had also been assigned to agricultural and industrial work, replacing the mobilized French labor force. On 1 May there were 138 existing companies not dependent on the Ministère de la Guerre .

According to an estimate of the French army’s staff, at the end of April 1940 there were about 55,000 Spaniards in the companies of workers assigned to the armed forces and another 40,000 worked in the field or in industry. In the internment camps there were still about 3,000 that were considered unfit.

In the «Légion Étrangère»

Since the outbreak of World War II, French authorities have also approached Spanish interned refugees in order to recruit volunteers for their Légion Étrangère .

The Spaniards who enlisted in the French army during 1939 and 1940 did so for different reasons. For the most part it meant to leave the abominable concentration camps to those who had stopped after fleeing Spain. For others it was the possibility of pursuing a frustrated combat, of taking the revenge of Germans and Italians after the Civil War. And for the lesser, the idealists, it was the continuation of their antifascist endeavor. There were also others to whom the French authorities gave them no other option if they did not want to be repatriated to Spain.

The total number of Spaniards thus enrolled, according to the French army staff, was about six thousand. They constituted a collective equilibrium with a clear national identity that they maintained during the conflict where they fought. They were veterans of the Civil War with military experience because many had been commanded in the People’s Army of the Republic, and young people hardly politicized of the fifth of the bottle (1941) and pacifier (1942). The former would provide guidance and advice to the latter to put into practice the four values ​​that characterized the performance of these Spaniards in World War II: bravery, modesty, efficiency and chivalry.

As they were offered two coupling models, those who chose to sign a five-year contract were shipped to Algeria, Sidi bel Abbes, to join the new regiments and battalions of the Légion Étrangère . During 1939 a total of 3,052 Spaniards were enlisted according to this model.

The rest preferred to enlist for the duration of the war. Thus they were sent to Barcarès, place where three regiments of march of foreign volunteers were organized. By February 10, 1940, Spaniards constituted 40% of the troops in these regiments (2,709 out of 6,770), and most of them had accepted the decree of May 27, 1939 authorizing the creation of units of foreign combatants.

The foreign volunteers recruited to fight against Germany were incorporated into several units trying to maintain some homogeneity. Their international and politically diverse nature prevented them from obtaining the favor of the French commandos when they were equipped and armed. Despite this mistrust, their behavior on the battlefield was of such merit that they were all recognized as members of the French Légion Étrangère after the war.

In the case of the 11e Régiment Étranger d’Infanterie (created in November 1939) the number of Spaniards has been estimated at about five hundred. This unit was distinguished in the fierce combats of the forest of Inor, near Verdún, and of Saint-Germain-sur-Meuse. The 12e Régiment Étranger d’Infanterie (February 1940) was fenced in Soissons and was reduced to 300 men when he managed to escape. These two units counted on a remarkable picture of professional legionaries. The 21st Regiment of Marche des Volontaires Étrangers (October 1939) suffered major casualties in the Ardennes, the 22e Regiment de Marche des Volontaires Étrangers (October 1939) rejected several German attacks at Villers-Carbonnel, near Péronne, before being annihilated and the 23rd Régiment de Marche des Volontaires Étrangers (May 1940) stopped the enemy advance for two days in Pont-sur-Yonne, southeast of Paris, although it was not fully formed. These three regiments mainly covered Spanish and refugees from Eastern Europe, received little military training and their commanders were reserve officers.

In North Africa was created the 97th Foreign Group of Division Recognition from motorized units and cavalry of the Légion . He was transferred to France in March of 1940 and he acted protecting the withdrawal of the French units before to carry out several counterattacks in which it was destroyed.

In France and captivity

Around 5,000 Spaniards died during the French campaign of 1940, belonging to both the military units and the workers’ companies, many of which were deployed at the front when the German attack began. For example, fifteen of these companies were surrounded in the Dunkerque bag. Those captured by the Germans were first deported to prison camps and then to extermination camps, according to the guidelines against the “Spanish Red Fighters” that the Nazi authorities had determined in communion with the Franco regime. Of the 7,200 Spaniards who were deported to Mauthausen, about five thousand died.

After the Franco-German armistice, the government of Vichy only kept militarized in the Légion Étrangère to those enlisted for five years. The others recovered their refugee status. The Vichy government offered them three options: to be repatriated, to regularize their situation by working in the field or in the industry, or to be transferred as forced laborers to the fields of North Africa. Most, of course, opted for the second and many of those who remained in France eventually joined the Resistance.

Months later, the authorities of Vichy recreated the units of foreign workers in which the Spaniards constituted the great majority: in August of 1943 were Spanish 31,000 of the 37,000 men framed in these units. In North Africa, the 8th Regiment of Foreign Workers and its companies spread throughout the territory were dissolved. The harsh conditions in which they had to perform forced labor were aggravated by the ill-treatment they received from the French Pétainist authorities.

Spaniards resident in France were also employed by the German authorities as labor during the occupation. Between 1942 and 1944, the Todt Organization recruited about 26,000 (initially voluntarily and from 1943 on a mandatory basis) and another 40,000 were deported to Germany.

The “13e Demi-Brigade of Marche”

Of the 2,249 men who made up the 13th Demi-Brigade of Marche , about five hundred were Spanish. The news of his organization arrived at the camps of Sidi bel Abbes and Fez in the first days of February 1940. Three-quarters of the Spanish legionaries volunteered and embarked in Oran on the 10th to the metropolis. After being equipped, the half brigade was concentrated in Belley, at the foot of the Alps, where an intense training in mountain directed by the lieutenant colonel Magrin-Vernerey, Monclar . This significant presence of Spaniards modified the traditional discipline existing in the units of the Légion Étrangère as their status as political refugees and not social outcasts introduced new relations between the officers and the troops based on camaraderie and confidence rather than on punishment and regulatory brutality.

Destined for the Allied force that was to operate in Scandinavia, the half-brigade embarked at Brest on 12 April for England, and from Glasgow to the Norwegian coast. He landed in Bjerkvik on 12 May, north of the German positions, and led during the following weeks the fighting that led to the reconquest of Narvik. When the time of evacuation arrived, on June 7, Spanish casualties had been no more than a hundred.

The endowment of Guadalajara with others of the Nine in Paris, 1944.

With free France

From Norway, the 13th Demi-Brigade was briefly transferred to Britain before returning to England. By then the situation in France was already decided. On 18 June, Charles de Gaulle announced his intention to direct all those French who wished to continue fighting to free their country. When he presented himself before the Spanish legionaries to ask them for their commitment to the cause of free France, hardly any volunteers volunteered as they were to be repatriated to Pétain France to be demobilized. But when the legionaries were ordered to go to Morocco, some three hundred Spaniards refused to do so and remained in England. The fears of these mutineers were fulfilled since the 13e Demi-Brigade finished quartered in Algeria without being its licensed Legionaries. From that moment, some disenchanted Spaniards would deserted to embark towards the Cameroon and to join forces of the free France in equatorial Africa. For example, a group of fifty defected with weapons and baggage in Senegal and made an epic march through jungles and savannas for a month to Brazzaville. Other Spaniards who followed in the ranks of the Légion Étrangère de Vichy ended up being destined to Senegal, French Equatorial Africa or the Mediterranean Levante when the 13e Demi-Brigade was dissolved.

Most of those who had stayed in England, along with other Spaniards who had been able to reach England, eventually joined the new Demi-Brigade that had reorganized Colonel Monclar with those legionaries committed to free France. A few others enlisted in the British forces. According to Paul Gaujac, of the 1,300 soldiers who joined De Gaulle, 600 were former Spanish Republicans serving as legionnaires, a figure that seems excessive. This unit left on 30 August to Douala, Cameroon, from where it participated in the conquest of French Gabon.

In Africa

On Christmas Day 1940, the 13th Demi-Brigade sailed to Sudan. There, his first battalion formed with the 3e Bataillon of Marche du Tchad the Brigade Française d’Orienta (BFO) of Colonel Monclar. The legionary battalion was commanded by Commander Dmitri Amilakvari , a Georgian nobleman of the Zedguinidze house who had enrolled in the Légion Étrangère years ago and whose brother Alexandr had fought in the Civil War as an officer of the Tercio de Navarra. In March 1941, the BFO concentrated on the Eritrean region of Chalamet to participate in the offensive on Italian East Africa. With the conquest of the fort of Cubcub the battle of Keren began, the first one that freed forces of the free France against troops of the Axis after the defeat of 1940. After this it ended up participating in the taking of Asmara and the port of Massawa at first of April. After his participation, he was sent to the desert of Gaza to join the 1st Division Légère of the free France that was being formed. As part of the campaign he participated in the Syrian-Lebanon campaign of June-July 1941. The Spanish legionaries participated in the assault on the heights of Kisoue, opening the way to Damascus, and reached Baalbek.

In this campaign there were other Spaniards, who remained in units loyal to the French government of Vichy. Most were in the 6e Régiment Étranger d’Infanterie , formed in October 1939, based in Homs and led by Colonel Barré. Some 300 Spaniards framed in 11e Bataillon des Volontaires Étrangers had been assigned to that regiment upon their arrival in the French Levant in April 1940. There were others who formed in several companies of work destined to the French colonial Levant. Some of them deserted to join the forces of free France but others fought in the units in which they were until surrender. After the same, some requested their entrance in 13e Demi-Brigade next to its compatriots.

At the end of this campaign, free French forces were concentrated in Deraa (Syria) for reorganization as the division was to be dissolved for the benefit of three light brigades. The 13e Demi-Brigade of Lieutenant-Colonel Amilakvari was reorganized into three battalions thanks to the increase of its troops, among which there were half a thousand Spaniards: its 1st Battalion was framed in the 2nd Brigade Légère of General Cazaud and the other two in the 1st Brigade Légère of General Koenig. At the end of 1941, after finishing his training, this brigade left for the North African front, entering combat in the passage of Halfaya before deploying in Bir Hakeim (one hundred kilometers to the south of Tobruk) in February of 1942. And there it was when Rommel’s offensive began three months later.

Bir Hakeim and El Alamein

In Bir Hakeim, General Koenig’s unit staged a stoical resistance before the assaults of the Italian and German forces. In a first phase, the armored cars of the Italian armored division Ariete penetrated in the locality before being hunted by groups formed and directed by Spanish legionaries, experimenting in the near antitank combat. A new and more powerful assault realized days later also was rejected during a week until the command of the Eighth Army authorized the retreat of the 1e Brigade Légère .

The numerous casualties forced to reorganize the 13e Demi-Brigade dissolving its third battalion and moving the first one from the 2e Brigade Légère . The Koenig brigade was assigned to the 7th British Armored Division for the Battle of El Alamein. Among the fallen during the same highlights Lieutenant Colonel Amilakvari . When Rommel’s forces began the retreat, the 1st Brigade Légère advanced in reserve and upon their arrival in Tripoli in January 1943, the Spanish legionaries met with those compatriots under the command of General Leclerc who had crossed the Sahara from Chad.

In February 1943, the brigades of free France that had arrived in Tunisia with the Eighth Army of Montgomery were reorganized to form the 1st Free French Division. Many Spaniards of the 13th Demi-Brigade took advantage of this situation to move to the unity of General Leclerc, whose personality inspired greater confidence than those generals like Alphonse Juin who had waited until the victory over the Afrika Korps to switch to the forces of free France .

In the North African campaign there were other Spanish fighters. They were the Legionnaires who had returned to the Maghreb from England to continue serving the Vichy France, along with some new recruits. Although they initially resisted the Allied landing, they subsequently participated in the battle for Tunisia in two prestigious units, the 3rd Régiment Étranger d’Infanterie and the 1st Régiment Étranger d’Infanterie de Marche , which in July 1943 became the Regiment of Marche de la Légion Étrangere . Acting this as the motorized infantry of the 5e Division Blindée , its Spaniards fought from the summer of 1944 in Europe in the army of general De Lattre de Tassigny.

In Europe

The two battalions of the 13th Demi-Brigade landed with the 1st Free French Division in Italy in April 1944, forming part of the French Expeditionary Corps (CEF) of General Juin. In May, the EFC participated in the offensive against the Gustav line. The 13e Demi-Brigade led the advance: crossed the Garellano River, crossed the second line of defense and continued towards Rome. There are graphic testimonies of the entrance of the 13e Demi-Brigade in Rome in spite of the orders of the allied command against this eventuality. Rome was followed by the liberation of Siena and the advance to the vicinity of Florence before the CEF was withdrawn to participate in the landing in Provence. At the moment the presence of Spaniards in the 13e Demi-Brigade has been gradually diminished by the casualties and the “transfers” to the division of Leclerc.

The 13e Demi-Brigade landed together with the 1st French Army of General de Lattre de Tassigny on August 16, 1944 in Saint-Tropez. From there he participated in the conquest of Toulon nine days later. On their way up the Rhone valley on the way to Lyons, in Valence, the Spaniards of the 13th Demi-Brigade were effusively greeted by one of the many Spanish guerrilla fighters operating in that area. Later, the Spanish legionaries participated in the fierce battles of Autun and Colmar, crossed the Rhine to penetrate in Germany and fought in the Alps, in the last confrontations of World War II.

With Leclerc

Among the men who initiated the adventure of General Leclerc (Philippe de Hauteclocque) in tropical Africa there were also Spaniards, but few, barely a handful. Their numbers increased on the occasion of the arrival in Tripoli in January of 1943 of the small force of the French general after crossing the desert of the Sahara thanks to the transference of legionaries of the 13e Demi-Brigade , as already said. Leclerc then began, in agreement with Montgomery, a process of expansion of his unit, turning it into a motorized light brigade called Force L. This unit was incorporated a month later to the offensive on Tunisia. Concentrated on Ksar Rhilane, she participated in the flanking of the Mareth line.

After the conquest of Tunisia, the Leclerc unit was stationed in Djidjelli, Algeria, to become an armored division. During this process, the contingent of Spaniards increased as a result of the incorporation of the Corps Franc d’Afrique and the enlistment of residents in the Oranesado. In fact, in this region there was a large colony of Spaniards and pied-noirs of Spanish origin who in November 1942 amounted to 70,000 individuals, 14,000 of them residing in Oran. In addition, when French internment camps were closed in April 1943, freed Spanish refugees had to choose between emigrating to Mexico, joining the British Royal Pioneer Corps , the Légion Étrangère or the Corps Franc d’Afrique . Many opted for some of the last three options.

The Corps Franc d’Afrique was organized in November 1942, at the request of General Giraud, by General De Monsabert with the aim of recruiting those foreigners who wished to join the struggle against the Axis. As the ex- peasant military stablishment distrusted these volunteers for their antifascist and leftist political orientation, he wanted to keep them apart from the French regular units. It was precisely this neat anti-fascist identity that encouraged not a few Spaniards (and not Spaniards) to enlist in this unit. Thus, among others was enlisted who was head of the Republican Navy, Admiral Miguel Buiza, who with the rank of captain sent a company composed of Spaniards. One of its most outstanding animators was Joseph Putz, a French veteran of the Great War and the International Brigades. The Corps Franc d’Afrique had about 3,000 men grouped in three battalions that were equipped and armed by the British. At the end of 1942 it was deployed on the far left of the Allied front, next to the Mediterranean, and participated in the final offensive on Tunis and Bizerte. Against the wishes of General Giraud and encouraged by Commander Putz, the Corps Franc d’Afrique volunteers joined the Leclerc formation division. Also incorporated some Spaniards who served in the legionary regiments of the army of Giraud.

The reason for this remarkable influx of Spaniards into Leclerc’s division had much to do with the rumors that spread about the creation of an entirely Spanish independent unit that would fight under the Spanish republican national flag. Although it did not become reality, the Republican tricolor flag appeared in the vehicles of the 9th Company of the Regiment of March of Chad by the battlefields of western Europe.

In September 1943 the 2nd Division Blindée of General Leclerc was born. The number of Spaniards is difficult to encrypt even though General Leclerc himself claimed, exaggeratedly, that he had several thousand under his orders. Most of them were in the Regiment of Marche du Chad , a mechanized infantry unit that was created in the summer of 1943. Its III Battalion was commanded by Commander Putz and one of its companies, the 9th, is formed almost entirely by a one hundred and fifty Spaniards. Its captain, Raymond Dronne, assures that there were Spaniards by the other units, specifically in the 11th companies, of accompaniment and of support; and who were politically anarchists, socialists and republicans, with very few communists.

In May of 1944 the 2e Division Blindée was transferred to England and 1 of August of 1944 landed in Normandy, where it participated in the hard combats of Ecouché during the formation of the bag of Falaise. Being part of the III US Army of General Patton, on the 23rd began from Argentan the advance that had like objective the liberation of Paris. The Regiment of Marche du Chad led the division and the Spanish company, the “Nine”, opened the march. At dusk the following day, their vehicles arrived at the Town Hall Square after traveling two hundred kilometers. These first vehicles that entered the French capital were Spanish names (in Spanish as Cañí , Madrid , Guadalajara , Teruel , Belchite , Brunete , Guernica … and in French as Don Quichotte , L’Ebre …) and his deed was immortalized thanks to the presence of foreign correspondents such as Ernest Hemingway, Robert Capa or Charles C. Wertenbaker. In Paris, other Spaniards belonging to the Resistance participated in the skirmishes with the German garrison.

General Leclerc's 2nd Armored Division passes through the Arc du Triomphe

General Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Division passes through the Arc du Triomphe

On September 8, Leclerc’s division resumed its march to Lorraine and Alsace. Together with US divisions he participated in the liberation of Strasbourg on 23 November and for the next two months he collaborated in the elimination of the surrounding forces around Colmar. At the end of January 1945, during this operation, the Spaniards of the 2nd Division Blindée met with their compatriots of the 13th Demi-Brigade who from the south of France had also reached the German border in this area.

After participating in the reduction of the existing bags in several Atlantic ports, the division of Leclerc returned in the end of April to the Rhine to penetrate in Germany. They marched through Karlsruhe, Stuttgart and Augsburg to reach Munich while one of their groupings was diverted to Berchtesgaden. Among the members of the division who reached Hitler’s Berghof on 5 May were two sections of the «Nine».

Of the 144 members of this company who landed at Utah Beach, there were only sixteen at the end of the war. At this time, not far from there, in the Mauthausen extermination camp a handful of surviving Spaniards led the insurrection of the prisoners’ committee of that camp and greeted the arrival of the allied forces with a sign written in Spanish on the door principal.

«Maquisards» Spanish

Also noteworthy is the action of several thousand Spanish guerrillas, the great majority of them communists, who fought in the French maquis. Although they carried out sporadic actions during 1941, it was in April of 1942 when the XIV Corps of Spanish Guerrilleros was officially constituted. It was an organization controlled by the Spanish Communist Party and independent of the French Resistance. In this embryonic phase, its first nuclei settled in the region of the Eastern Pyrenees. By the end of that year, according to the PCE would not be more than half a thousand members.

During 1943 its organization was developed with the creation of “companies”, “battalions”, “brigades” and “divisions” of few troops (a brigade counted on about 300 men) and the number of guerillas increased. Thus, at the end of the year the seven divisions of the XIV Corps of Spanish Guerrillas operated in 31 departments of the Midi and Provence. Before that, in the autumn, a theoretical fusion of these units with the French Communist organization of the Resistance had taken place, although in practice they retained their organizational autonomy.

Spanish Partisans in France, 1944

Spanish Partisans in France, 1944

In May 1944, the XIV Corps became the Spanish Guerrilla Group, always controlled by the PCE and with full autonomy from French political and resistance organizations. In fact, for the Spanish guerrilla leaders their organization was a small foreign army that aided in the liberation of France but was saved for its final destination: Spain. In August of 1944 the AGE was recognized by the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) as a Spanish organization that is part of them. And in the spring, Spanish guerrilla units had participated in battles as relevant to the French Resistance as those of Glières, Vercors and Mount-Mouchet. After the general mobilization of June, following the landing of Normandy, its troops reached the ten thousand guerrillas. In November, after the liberation of French Noon, a reorganization was carried out, creating eleven security battalions that were deployed throughout the region until on March 30, 1945, the Spanish guerrillas were demobilized.

With Great Britain

A Spanish-made unit was part of the British Armed Forces during the entirety of World War II: the No. 1 Spanish Company of the Royal Corps of Engineers, whose flag is displayed in a museum in Northampton. It was born in 1940 and was dissolved in 1946. Most of its first troops came from the contingent of Spanish legionaries of the 13th Demi-Brigade who mutinied after returning from Narvik. Some enlisted in the British army along with a few escaped from France after the débâcle (it is possible to cite here that during the campaign of France, 185e Compagnie de Prèstataires Étrangers was assigned to the BEF and a few survivors could reach England) and received military training for three months while organizing the company. There were about 280 men with British and Spanish non-commissioned officers who were stationed in various parts of the English coast. On 13 August 1944 they landed in Normandy and during the Battle of the Ardennes were temporarily under US command and about to enter into combat. In this unit, the British special forces recruited about forty individuals who undertook various training courses in parachuting, sabotage, etc., in the face of the hypothesis of an intervention in Spain.

Another small group of Spaniards, some seventy, serving in Syria and Lebanon passed to British forces when the armistice between Germany and France was signed in 1940. Most were Legionnaires of the 6th Regiment who fled to Palestine and enlisted in the 50th Middle East Commando commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George AD Young, where they established their Company B. They received a rigorous training for five months until in December 1940 they were transferred to Crete. Having returned to Egypt in March 1941, the 50th Commando was amalgamated with the 52th into a new unit that was integrated into the Layforce as Battalion D: the Spaniards formed half a company (two “troops”). In May they returned to Crete where they fought hard with the German fallschirmsjägern : after the evacuation, only seventeen Spaniards returned to Alexandria (in 1945 they returned to England 35 Spaniards after years of captivity in Germany). These survivors joined with their peers in the 1st Special Regiment of the Special Operations Executive .

Another handful of Spaniards from the 50th Middle East Commando fought in one of the battalions of the Queen’s Regiment of the 7th Armored Division (131st Brigade).

Between April and July 1943, the British organized a series of engineering companies in North Africa. Specifically, the 361st was entirely made up of Spaniards, they were majority in the 362nd and a minority significance in the 363rd. From the Torch operation until May 1943 the number of Spaniards who enlisted was calculated in 794. The 361st Company received military training in February 1944 and the three departed in September of that year to Great Britain. From there, a small group of the 361ª joined the No. 1 Spanish Company .

There were also hundreds of Spanish sailors forming part of the crews of the merchants that crossed the Atlantic as well as some individuals in the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and propaganda services such as the BBC.

Finally, we must mention the numerous collaborators of the intelligence and information services allies. The most famous was Juan Pujol, better known as Garbo , a spy who played a prominent role in the disinformation operations that preceded Operation Overlord in 1944.

With the Soviet Union

At the end of the Spanish Civil War, about one thousand members of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) found refuge in the Soviet Union: most of them were its political and military leaders, led by the leadership of the party, the Comintern was responsible for facilitating the travel and installation of the elected cadres in the major Soviet cities: Moscow, Leningrad, Kharkov, Gorky, etc. There, the most outstanding leaders continued their political work, the military were sent to perfect their studies to the academies Voroshílov and Frunze, and the others went to work in the industry and in other uses.

Besides these communist militants, in the Soviet Union were other groups of Spaniards. The most numerous were the so-called “children of war”, a little less than 3,000 refugee children and adolescents who left Spain in 1937. He was followed by the hundred long aviators of the Republic constituted by whom the end of the war in Spain he had been caught without having completed his training courses with the Soviet air forces in Kirovobad and those who arrived from Spain. And finally, there were more than fifty sailors who arrived in the USSR in 1939.

Spanish Volunteers in the Red Army, 1941

Spanish Volunteers in the Red Army, 1941

In spite of their small numbers, communist militants in Soviet territory possessed two valuable qualities in the eyes of the authorities: most were veterans of the Republican army and all belonged to a communist elite of total confidence, delivered to the cause without restrictions. According to the figures provided by Lister, in total there were 749 young Spaniards and adults who participated in the Great Patriotic War, of which they fell in combat 204 (according to the relationship developed by the Spanish Center of Moscow, the number of fallen people identified is of 186) and that they obtained numerous Soviet decorations: among them an order of Hero of the Soviet Union and two orders of Lenin.


As soon as the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union began, many Spaniards volunteered to the Soviet authorities and the leadership of the Comintern to fight the aggressor. Although they were initially rejected, a few were admitted to a special unit currently being formed around Moscow: in the Otdelnaya Moto-Strelkovaya Osobogo Naznacheniya Brigade (OMSBON, Independent Specialized Fusilier Brigade). Together with volunteers of other nationalities such as Germans, Austrians, Poles, Bulgarians, Hungarians, etc. (of which many were veterans of the International Brigades) a multinational battalion was organized in which the Spaniards constituted their 4th Company: there were about 125 men sent by Captain Pelegrín Pérez Galarza.

The WHOBON was a unit of the Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennij Del (NKVD, People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) which originated in the order of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Sovnarkom of June 29, 1941 addressed to party organs to carry all the Soviet territory fighting against the invader. The directive contained a program for the organization and conduct of partisan and clandestine activities in the territories occupied by the German army. Two days earlier, on 27 June, the NKVD had begun to organize special groups for reconnaissance and action on the enemy’s rear. Under the command of General Bogdanov, the picture was conformed with members of different departments of the NKVD that were reinforced by some 1,500 militants of the Communist Party. And in addition to the several hundred foreigners mentioned, the team members of the Komsomol , outstanding athletes of the main sports societies of the country and university students, completed the unit. In October, the unit went under the command of Colonel Mikhail Fedorovich Orlov and was organized into a major plane, two regiments of motorized riflemen, health and parachute services, schools and an aviation section. For operations on the front would be divided into autonomous detachments of various sizes: from 1,000-1,200 men to special groups of 3-10 members. The training program included fire practices with various types of weapons, combat techniques, topography, guidance, demolition, parachuting and all those necessary for the development of guerrilla actions in the enemy rearguard. The ideological and political preparation was also of great importance in finding among its missions the reconstruction of the organization of the Communist Party in the occupied zones.

Although the infiltration operations of special groups began in late August 1941, the Spaniards, together with the bulk of the unit, participated in the defense of Moscow after the end of their training period. In October, when Moscow was put into a state of emergency, OMSBON was temporarily assigned to the garrison of the capital. On the night of the 16th, the command of the brigade was ordered to deploy in the area covered by the squares Sverdlov, Mayakovsky, Pushkin and Red. The Spanish company was entrusted with the defense and surveillance of various buildings, some of them within the Kremlin itself.

Other groups of Spaniards participated in the campaign in various ways, where they resided. In Kharkiv, following the evacuation of the Spanish colony, a small group of veterans were enlisted in special operations led by the sinister and heterodox Domingo Ungría in one of the battalions of engineers under Colonel Ilyá G. Stárinov, also a veteran of the Spanish war Initially they carried out work of demolition and after the fall of the Ukrainian city they moved to the zone of Rostov of the Don, where they developed missions of sabotage in the German rear.

In Leningrad volunteers were presented practically all the young Spaniards present and were enrolled in various units of the militia until they were demobilized in December 1941. The Spanish adolescents who took part in his epic were a hundred, many of whom fell and some received decorations posthumously, such as the order of the Red Flag that received a girl named Maria Pardinas.


From January 1942, WHOBON recovered as a main function the formation and infiltration of its special detachments: only in the first three months of that year were infiltrated in the enemy rear more than twenty groups and another 212 (with a total of 7,316 men) were assigned to the headquarters of the fronts for use behind enemy lines. Already earlier, as of November 1941, most of the WHOBON Spaniards had been withdrawn from the front and taken to the rear, where they began their specific training in guerrilla tactics.

Despite these Spaniards enrolled in the NKVD, most of those who fought during the Great Patriotic War did so as partisans, some even coming to be considered Soviet heroes. The first were about a dozen groups led and formed by Spanish sent to the enemy rear in Belarus and in the regions of Kalinin or Smolensko during the spring of 1942.

The year 1942 was that of the massive incorporation of the Spanish volunteers into the fighting. After the initial refusal, the Soviet authorities authorized the recruitment of the Spaniards which produced what one witness called “general mobilization”, since the majority opted for the enlistment. Many ended up in the special forces under the 5th Independent Brigade of Special Designation Engineers commanded by Stárinov. Thus, in February 1942 the first interventions were made in the Taganrog Gulf area.

Since the summer of 1942, most of the Spanish partisans were removed from the fighting and concentrated around Moscow, at the Partisan High School in Bukovo. There, a group of some three hundred Spaniards under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Ungría and Colonel Starinov received specialized instruction for approximately three months. In November of that year, most of the Spaniards were transferred to the Soviet Caucasus to fight during the following months. The shores of the Black Sea, the steppe of the Kalmucos, the regions of Ciscaucasia and Kubán became the battlefields of a majority of Spanish fighters.

At the same time, the Spanish company OMSBON was transferred to the Georgian capital Tbilisi. There, unlike their compatriots in other units, they did not participate in guerrilla operations and were limited to carrying out security work in the rear like the other NKVD forces.

As the fronts advanced towards the west, the partisan zones of activity of the Spaniards moved paulativamente to Crimea. There, a group parachuted in March 1943 was completely annihilated around the Shubbin town. Some time later, the inhabitants of the place erected a monument in his memory. A month later, the Spanish partisans of Stárinov were concentrated again near the Soviet capital.

There, in May 1943 they were amalgamated with the 4th Company of WHOBON. They constituted a heterogeneous group of about five hundred men in whose midst the differences between the disciplined and severe members of the NKVD, obedient to the leadership of the PCE, and the undisciplined and individualist ex-partisans led by Stárinov and Ungría soon appeared. It was at this time that the communist leadership obtained from the Soviet authorities the withdrawal of the Spanish volunteers from the fighting, arguing that following their generous blood tribute would fatally weaken their structure and organization. The Spanish communist militants had already acquired extensive experience in actions of infiltration and sabotage, and were available to the leadership of the PCE and Stalin. From that moment, groups of Spaniards were sent to different military academies to complete their formation and to become noncommissioned and officers of the Soviet Army. These are the cases of Lieutenants José Gros and Manuel Alberdi. The latter participated in the battle of Berlin under the command of an engineering unit that installed a bridge over the River Spree very near the Reichstag and shortly thereafter “rebaptized” a Berlin street named after the late Secretary General of the PCE, Jose Diaz.

The military commands

After their arrival in the Soviet Union in 1939, the most prominent communist military officers were sent to the military academies Voroshilov (staff) and Frunze, where they spent two years perfecting their military knowledge. Among them were Antonio Cordón, Enrique Lister, Juan-Modesto Guilloto, Pedro Mateo Merino, Artemio Precious, Manuel Tagüeña, Ángel Beltrán and others, all veterans of the Spanish Civil War who during the same had sent from armies to battalions.

As a result of the outbreak of war, in 1941 Frunze Academy courses were reduced in duration and most of the Spanish military became instructors while some were destined for Red Army units. Among the best-known of the latter are Lieutenant Rubén Ruiz Ibárruri, son of PCE leader Dolores Ibárruri, who fell in Stalingrad (decorated as Hero of the Soviet Union) and Santiago de Paúl Nelken, son of the socialist leader Margarita Nelken, who died during the Berlin offensive.

Of these Spanish communist soldiers stood out three by the jobs that they reached and the destinies that received. They were Antonio Cordón, former Spanish military professional who during the Spanish Civil War had held high political positions in the Ministry of Defense, Juan-Modesto Guilloto, commander of the Army of the Ebro in 1938-39 and Enrique Lister, head of the Fifth Army Corps in those same two years. The three were promoted to general major in 1943 after finishing their studies and destined to the formation of the Polish army that the Soviet authorities decided to create. According to Líster, Antonio Cordón was appointed chief of staff of the Polish army corps while Juan-Modesto Guilloto and he received the command of the divisions 1 and 2, respectively. In October of 1944 they received the mission to move to Yugoslavia to integrate like advisers in the army partisano. They arrived in November of that same year and remained until February of 1945 assigned to the headquarters of Tito. But these were not the only three Soviet Spanish officers who acted as instructors of the Yugoslav partisans: there were another ten, of which two (Facundo López and Américo Brizuela) died in combat in March 1945 near the Drava River.

Airmen and Sailors

Of the Spanish aviators present, a first group was admitted at the end of July of 1941 and the majority of those belonging to the promotion that was prepared in Kirovovad it was from October of that same year. Those of the first group, after staying together and being assigned to squadrons located at the Bukovo airfield near Moscow, were divided into different units. The Spanish pilots did not form any squad strictly Spanish and were destined individually to diverse units of the Soviet air forces. For this reason it can be affirmed that there were Spanish pilots in all the fronts and that participated in the most important battles, like those of Stalingrado and Kursk.

Among the Spanish aces of the war in the sky should be mentioned Jose Maria Pascual Santamaria, who posthumously won Lenin’s order for his participation in Stalingrad, Alfonso García Martín, who became captain and was decorated with two orders of the Red Flag and two of the Patriotic War, to Antonio Garci’a Cano (decorated with an order of the Red Flag), to Antonio Arias, who did not admit him in the special group of aces of the 130ª Division by its condition of Spanish, to Manuel Zarauza Clavero, who arrived at Colonel or Juan Lario, who commanded a squadron during the battle of Berlin. As a final anecdote we can mention José María Bravo, who was assigned to a unit in the Caucasus and was the escort of the planes that transferred Stalin and his entourage to Tehran in 1943.

As far as seafarers were concerned, the majority came from the crews of merchants seized by the Soviet authorities to be in their ports at the end of the Spanish Civil War. One of these ships was Cabo San Agustín, which was incorporated into the Soviet Navy until it was torpedoed and sunk in the Black Sea. The most well-known sailor was Pepín Álvarez who as captain of a merchant repeatedly crossed the route that communicated Murmansk or Arjánguelsk with the western countries.


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