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jueves, 23 de agosto de 2012

Spaniards in French Resistance

During the months of January and February of 1939 there was a never seen before exodus in Catalan lands during the Spanish Civil War: 500,000 people (mostly civilian population and part of the Republican Army) headed for French territory fleeing the advancing army of General Franco rebelled against the legitimate government and harassment by air forces sent by its allies in the war (Hitler and Mussolini), which strafed and bombed the transited roads and populations where they took refuge.

Refugees entering the city of Le Perthus in February 1939.
Photo by Bates Winifred.
(Imperial War Museum, ID: HU 33169)

Paris government, initially against the passage of the columns of refugees into French territory finally agreed to open the border housing them in camps in the towns of Saint-Cyprien, Argelès-sur-Mer and Barcarés, subsequently opening more fields in Agde, Gurs, Vernet, Noé, Rieucros, Vernet d´Ariege, Mazerès, Septfonds and the Colliure Fort. Life in those camps Life in these fields proved to be very painful, since the conditions of accommodation, food and hygiene were grossly deficient, leading to a general deterioration of health conditions of the inmates, reaching experience a large number of deaths among the weakest (children, the sick and injured, elderly ...).

With French war declaration against Germany after Poland’s invasion in September 1939 Spaniard refugees, that mostly still remained in France (few could emigrate or wanted to return to Spain), were given the chance to contribute to war effort, that implying to enlist in Foreign Legion, marching companies or fortification companies intended for military construction tasks. It was in these circumstances that took place the German invasion and the defeat of 1940, a fact that would mark the fate of the Spanish refugees during the following years.

Escape networks: The «Reseau Pat O’Leary» (also known as Ponzán Group)

The evasion networks used by thousands of refugees fleeing the barbarism that engulfed Europe and by Allied soldiers in enemy territory to escape German army stem from the work carried out by the Spanish Republican organizations on both sides of the Pyrenees, which were later joined by the nascent French Resistance groups.

One of the more important networks was initiated by Francisco Ponzán Vidal, old national teacher of anarchist orientation and officer of the Information Service of the 24th Division during the Civil War. After reaching France and stay at the disciplinary camp at Vernet d’Ariege he contacted his brethren in Alto Aragón and La Rioja with the goal of creating a network to connect both sides of Pyrenees. When this network was ready Ponzán contacted with British secret services agents in France that, before the occupation take place and had to go underground, gave him money and a couple of radio transmitters. In March 1941 Ponzán agreed with Louis Noveau (a French agent) and the English captain Ian Garrow (recently evaded from prisoner’s camp at Saint-Hippolyte-du-Fort), to help downed Allied airmen to reach Spain so then they could reach England.

At the same time the network was expanded also increased the troubles faced as German forces were decided in destroying clandestine organizations in occupied territory and there were also indiscretion or betrayal by some of the rescued pilots. All this led to the arrest of a significant portion of the operatives, as was the case of Garrow, apprehended in June 1941, and the Belgian doctor Albert Guérisse, sent to substitute Garrow and detained few days after his arrival in France; both were detained bya Vichy police and jailed in Marseille. Guérisse was lucky to be freed, his false identity he was using («Lt. Commander Pat O’Leary»), afterward gave name to the network as it was known by the Allies.

In 1942 the «Reseau Pat O’Leary» centred its activities in the Hotel of Paris at Toulouse, where most of the network’s expeditions stayed before heading to Spain. With the build-up of arrivals soon guides could not cope, which advised to increase the departures by sea, which were being organized by Manel Huet Piera and Segunda Montero, fugitives embarked on Spanish trading ships that left from Sète to Barcelona and Valencia (the captains and the French customs were bribed, although in the case of customs so did to annoy their German counterparts).

Map of the Ponzán network (made from this map)

In 1943 the «Pat O’Leary» escape network activities were again in the spotlight of the Gestapo (Ponzán helped Garrow to get away of Mauzac camp at Dordogne at the beginning of January of the same year). Germans resorted to bribery to try to dismantle the organization, which succeeded in part when one of its members, Frenchman Roger Neveau (nicknamed "The Legionnaire"), betrayed the Mongelard married couple (owners of the Hotel of Paris), the Jewish tailor Ullman (responsible for making clothes and costumes for the fugitives) and Louis Nouveau (arrested in the Demarcation Line separating the occupied France of Vichy France as he led a group of airmen). In March of that same year Guerisse was also recaptured. All were deported to the death camps, Guerisse was first sent to Dachau to be subsequently transferred to Mauthausen, where he was able to survive thanks to the help of the camp’s international underground organization (initiated by Spanish deportees who were interned in the 1939 – 1940 period).

Ponzán and men not apprehended rebuilt the network again, although the most advisable for Ponzán would have been to leave the area immediately. He didn’t do it because he wanted to organize his sister Pilar escape (detained in previous raids and interned in the Brens camp), that made his luck ran out and he was arrested by a French policeman after recognizing him in the street. After his arrest, he was sentenced to six months in prison for being undocumented (he had eaten his false identity card while he was in jail waiting to be questioned).

After these six months and when he was about to be released the Gestapo (who suspected his true identity) and part of the judicial system of Vichy akin to the Germans succeeded to sentence him to eight months imprisonment for «anti-national activities» and transferred him on June 6, 1944 to the cells of Saint Michael, reserved for the Gestapo arrested (and where he was probably tortured).

Plaque of Buzet cemetery
To our brother Francisco Ponzán.
Spanish political exile.
Great resistant.
Died for France on 8/17/1944 at the age of 33 years.

On August 17, while fighting to liberate the city already begun in the streets of Toulouse , Francisco Ponzán and 50 other prisoners were taken from their cells and taken to the forest Buzet-sur-Tarn (about 30 km. NE of Toulouse ) where they were executed and their bodies burned in three fires (today still unknown if they were burned alive).

In recognition for his services he was posthumously awarded with:
  • His Majesty’s Laurel Leaf Emblem (a British award rarely given to foreigners)
  • The Liberty Medal (awarded by the United States Government)
  • The Resistance Medal and the War Cross with palms and captain of French Army and third class mission agent

Spanish guerrilla fighters in Resistance forces

After France defeat in 1940 marching and fortification companies were reconverted in disciplinary type groups known as Groupes de Travailleurs Étrangers (Foreign Worker Groups, GTE), acting mainly in non-occupied France (Pétain's Vichy). These groups where formed by Spaniards and other twenty nationalities that, along French citizens, will provide the basis of the Resistance.

First known actions were in winter of 1941: GTE 643 partially blow the train bridge of Saint-Brice-sur-Vienne (Haute Vienne) and GTE 514, 515 and 517 (Haute-Savoie alpine region) carried out the distribution of propaganda leaflets and engaged in helping people targeted by Nazis providing shelter and forged documents.

This first resistance acts marked the zones where Spanish guerrilla fighters deployed: the Alps region, the Central region and coasts of Brittany and Normandy (which also involved the participation of Spanish labour in the construction of the Atlantic Wall, a defensive construction carried out by the Organization Todt to avoid future Allied landings in Europe, and that would be target of several acts of sabotage of various kinds) with Toulouse as an operational and directing centre.

There were also Spaniards acting in Paris, as was the case of Catalan José Roig, executed in July 1941 after being accused of recruitment tasks for De Gaulle (in fact he was one of the first Resistance fighters to be executed in the capital) and Celestino Alfonso, part of Special Detachment lead by the Armenian poet Missak Manouchian, its members apprehended and shot in February 21st 1944 (Romanian Olga Bancic, the only women in the group, was decapitated in Sttutgart in May 10th 1944). After the shooting of the 22 men of the group the famous «affiche rouge» (red poster) intending to criminalize them was published but it ended being a vindication of them.

Spanish guerrilla fighters first agreed to be in this organization, but in May 1944 the Agrupación of Guerrilleros Españoles (Spaniard Guerrilla Group, AGE) is born as an independent force outside of the FTP-MOI in combat for the Liberation so they are provided weapons by Resistance leaders and aspires to liberate Spain in future times.

Spanish guerrilla fighters first agreed to be in this organization, but in May 1944 the Agrupación of Guerrilleros Españoles (Spaniard Guerrilla Group, AGE) is born as an independent force outside of the FTP-MOI in combat for the Liberation so they are provided weapons by Resistance leaders and aspires to liberate Spain in future times.

Days before the Normandy Landings (June 6th 1944) Spanish guerrilla amounts about 12,000 men, with 1,000 more among the other nationalities groups and 24,000 in charge of help tasks as couriers and not being armed.

One of the most significant actions of the Spaniard guerrilla fighters (the 3rd Division of the AGE) in Normandy Campaign combats were the Madeleine fighting of July 22th and 23th when a German column composed by 1,500 soldiers and some vehicles were ambushed in Saint-Hyppolite-du-Fort road to Anduze (40 km NE of Nimes) with help from FTPF maquisards knowing the zone.

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