A new political thriller, ‘A Betrayal of Heroes’ by writer David Ebsworth, published this month, picks up the story of Spanish Republicans who carried on the fight against fascism and Europe’s Nazis all through the Second World War.
Here Ebsworth writes about how his novels are intended to take the story of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath to new readers – to folk who probably wouldn’t pick up a non-fiction history book. ‘A Betrayal of Heroes’ is available here.
Yes, guilty! I write historical fiction. But all my stories are solidly rooted in fact and my aim has always been to take special periods of history to wider audiences. And none of the periods in which my novels are set has been more special for me than the Spanish Civil War.
I’d already written a couple of thrillers set towards the end of the conflict, ‘The Assassin’s Mark’ and ‘Until the Curtain Falls’. They follow the fortunes of journalist Jack Telford, first as he becomes embroiled in Franco’s 1938 real-life but stranger-than-fiction propaganda exercise – battlefield tours for Europe’s followers of fascism, the War Routes of the North – and, second, as he survives the ravages of San Pedro de Cardeña and the closing chapters in the Siege of Madrid.
The climax of ‘Until the Curtain Falls’ finds Telford on board the Stanbrook – that remarkable true episode during which a final shipload of Republicans managed to escape from Alicante on board the tramp steamer captained by Cardiff skipper, Archibald Dickson – and then in Oran with the vessel’s refugees.
But I started to be intrigued by what might have happened next.
I knew, of course, about the awful conditions in the refugee internment camps, in Algeria, in French Morocco and in the south of France itself. I knew a fair bit about former International Brigadistas who’d gone on to fight with the Red Army. Or with partisan groups in Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia and elsewhere. Or the large numbers of Poles who stayed in France, after serving with the Dąbrowszczacy Battalion, and joined the French Resistance. Or those who’d ended up in Mauthausen and Auschwitz. Or the later stories and fates of many who’d fought within the 15th International Brigade.
But I also knew that, when Paris was liberated in August 1944, the first Allied troops into the city belonged to a company of Leclerc’s Second French Armoured Division. Yet they weren’t French troops. They were Spanish, as many readers will know. They belonged to the Ninth Company in the Third Battalion of the Chad Armoured Infantry Regiment. The Company was by then universally known as La Nueve, because most of its soldiers were formerly members of the Spanish Republican Army. Their half-tracks were emblazoned with the names of battles in Spain – Teruel, Guadalajara, Jarama, Belchite and others. Their battalion commander was an old warhorse, Joseph Putz, a French veteran of the First World War, but who’d also commanded the 14th International Brigade as a volunteer in Spain and who’d fought with distinction for the Republic.
On 24 and 25 August 1944, La Nueve provided support to the French Resistance, which had already risen, days previously, against the Germans in Paris. And those Resistance fighters were led by Henri Tanguy, otherwise known as Colonel Rol. Tanguy had been a political commissar among the French volunteers in Spain. His best friend, Théo Rol, had died there – and Tanguy had adopted Théo’s surname as a nom de guerre.
So, between the Stanbrook in March 1939 and the Liberation of Paris in August 1944, what had happened? Was there a link, a thread between one event and the other? Naturally – and it turned out this thread would inspire the story which forms the historically factual background to ‘A Betrayal of Heroes’.
Spanish Republicans constituted La Nueve (the Nine) company in Leclerc’s 2nd Armoured Division and were the vanguard in the Liberation of Paris in August 1944.
There’s a very direct link, of course, since one of the Republican soldiers who escaped aboard the Stanbrook was the valenciano, Amado Granell Mesado. Granell had also fought throughout the Spanish Civil War and, not quite by coincidence, was also adjutant to La Nueve, helping to lead the company when they charged into Paris five years later. Granell therefore features strongly in the novel, alongside a fictional Jack Telford.
There’s a whole lot of other real-life characters in the novel as well.
Paquita Gorroño (Francisca López Cuadrada) had been born in Madrid, evacuated to Valencia and there worked for the Republic’s Ministry of Public Instruction. At the end of the war, as a refugee, she passed through the internment camps but reached Rabat in French Morocco with her husband, where she helped organise the Spanish trade unions – which remained largely intact in French Morocco. As a result, she became known as La Pasionaria Rabat. She died in Rabat itself at the age of 103, as recently as 2017.
Paquita’s story introduced me to a new world – the world of the large Spanish communities scattered across Algeria and French Morocco. These long standing communities were trapped somewhere back in the period before 1936, as though the civil war had never happened. The old conflicts still raged.
Then, during that summer of 1944, Telford’s travels bring him into contact with other key figures of the Republic’s communities in exile – in London, Juan Negrín and Arturo Barea (then running the Spanish section of the BBC’s European Service); in Paris, Victoria Kent y Siano (formerly the Republic’s First Secretary at the Paris Embassy) and María Casares (the actress daughter of Santiago Casares y Quiroga, Prime Minister of Spain from May until July 1936); and in Toulouse, Rodolfo Llopis (exiled General Secretary of both PSOE and UGT).
The betrayals which give the novel its title are many and varied, but they include the broken promises made to the Spaniards fighting within Leclerc’s Division – promises that, once the Allies had dealt with Hitler and Mussolini, they would next turn their attention to Spain and Franco. After all, Churchill and Roosevelt had signed the Atlantic Charter in August 1941, setting out the principles for a post-war world – a guarantee of self-government, democracy, for those deprived of it. An end to dictatorships.
Yet those promises were never kept and the men of La Nueve suffered the double agony of hearing how, in October 1944, thousands of guerrilleros, having previously liberated so many of those southern French cities like Toulouse, took the weapons supplied to them as part of the Resistance and drove a Republican wedge through the heart of the Pyrenees into northern Spain, the Aran Valley, towards Lleida. Without support from the Allies, a campaign doomed to fail, the guerrilleros finally overwhelmed by Franco’s forces.
The soldiers of La Nueve bear witness, time and time again, to those promises made by the Allies, and recorded in their interviews between 1998 and 2006 with author Evelyn Mesquida for her book about La Nueve. Those interviews were a great inspiration for my novel, along with the huge volume by Eduardo Pons Prades, Republicanos Españoles el la Segunda Guerra Mundial. But the person who best kept my fiction within the bounds of historical veracity was Bob Coale, Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Rouen – an encyclopaedic knowledge of so much that I needed to research.
Those former soldiers of the Republic within the ranks of La Nueve, and International Brigaders like Joseph Putz who fought alongside them, continued their battle against fascism and Europe’s Nazis to the very end. Putz died in the fighting at Grussenheim early in 1945, and La Nueve went on to fight its final battle at Inzell on 3 and 4 May 1945, arriving at Berchtesgaden on the following day. There’s a legend that, of the 146 Spanish Republicans who formed the original core of La Nueve, only 16 survived the war – though this must be entirely incorrect. We have details and names of all those who were killed and they number less than forty.
The last surviving member of La Nueve, Rafael Gómez Nieto, died in a Strasbourg nursing home as recently as March 31, 2020, at the age of 99. He was a victim of Covid.
But what about the other side of the themes touched by the novel? There’s the reminder, of course, that 50,000 fascist Spaniards volunteered to fight as part of Hitler’s Spanish legion, the División Azul. And there is Franco’s conviction, until relatively late in the war, that Hitler couldn’t be beaten and might help his ambitions of restoring a Spanish empire, beginning with the possible acquisition of Algeria and Morocco from the French.
Of course, this is a novel, a work of fiction, which can only give the briefest of mentions to these themes, but I hope they give a decent flavour of Spain’s involvement – and particularly the part played by Spanish Republicans and international supporters of the Republic. And I hope readers will at least take away that image of the victory parade down the Champs-Élysées on Saturday 26 August 1944, General Charles de Gaulle leading the procession, but immediately followed by the half-tracks of La Nueve, each of them painted with the names of those battles where those same Republican soldiers and the International Brigades had fought throughout the Spanish Civil War.
Sadly, the part played by Spanish Republican members of the Free French forces and the French Resistance has, until relatively recently, been airbrushed from history, but thankfully that further betrayal is now being corrected – and perhaps ‘A Betrayal of Heroes’ might make some small contribution to that process.
Posted on 7 July 2021.