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Barcelona in Flames — Excerpt from Abel Paz’s Durruti in the Spanish Revolution

Posted on December 22nd, 2008 in AK Book Excerpts

Revolution by the Book will periodically post excerpts from new (and older) AK Press books. This one comes from Part III, Chapter I of Durruti in the Spanish Revolution, by Abel Paz (translated by Chuck Morse). The chapter covers the opening moments of the Spanish Revolution in Barcelona, July 19, 1936. Enjoy!


Barcelona in Flames

The fascists put their military machine in gear just before five in the morning. The leaders knew what they wanted, but the soldiers had been deceived into thinking that they were defending a Republic in peril.

The Montesa Calvary regiments took Tarragona Street toward the Plaza de España. The Santiago regiment left its barracks on Lepanto Street and followed Industria Street on their way to the “Cinc d’Ors.” The Seventh Light Artillery from Sant Andreu divided into two columns; one circumvallated the city and the other cut across it, both heading for the Plaza de Cataluña. The Mountain Artillery from the Docks took Icaria Avenue; its objective was Palacio Plaza and control of the port. The Badajoz Infantry Regiment left its barracks in Pedralbes behind and advanced along the Diagonal to occupy the center of the capital. The Sappers Battalion companies left their barracks on Cortes Street, which they followed on their march toward the Plaza de España. There they would link up with the Montesa regiments and seize the Paralelo, establishing a direct route to the port. The divided loyalties among the officers of the Alcántara Infantry Regiment mostly neutralized it, but Colonel Jacobo Roldán managed to send out a company to attack Radio Barcelona’s transmitter on Caspe Street.

Who will fight these forces? Who will fight these soldiers led by men who confidently assured themselves that “the rabble will run like pussies as soon as they hear the cannons’ thunder?”

The rabble? Assault Guards were already breaking ranks: they were fraternizing with the CNT and FAI workers and, together, they all formed an urban guerrilla force that would determine the outcome of the battle. They were joined by POUM groups (who were as unarmed as the CNT), UGT militants, and, later, the Esquerra Republicana’s boldest activists, whom the Generalitat had armed generously. The ideological differences that existed among the members of this human conglomerate melted as they faced a common danger and threw themselves against the military apparatus that was declaring war on everything in its path.

Where was each side’s General Staff? The fascists installed theirs in the General Captaincy, where General Fernández Burriel led the rebellion after Captain General Llano de la Encomienda was abandoned by his men.

Where was the General Staff of the other camp? Not exactly in the Catalan Interior Ministry, where Minister España showcased his inability to give an order or coordinate anything, despite having the assistance of General Aranguren, three companies of Assault Guards, and the Civil Guard’s Nineteenth Tercio in the Palacio Plaza.

Nor was it in the Generalitat, although its leader, Lluís Companys, had accepted the struggle and “whatever fate awaits him.” He hightailed it to Vía Layetana as soon as the first shots rang out. Captain Federico Escofet urged him to do this, thinking that location more secure for his person.

It certainly wasn’t in Police Headquarters, where Escofet, Guarner, and Arrando hoped to lead the battle from a map of Barcelona. Escofet had disdainfully rebuffed Julián Gorkin when he demanded weapons for the POUM.

Then where was the General Staff of the “rabble”? In reality, it had no General Staff. The popular resistance was a decentralized initiative led by unions, District Committees, and an enthusiastic multitude of women, men, and youngsters who laid in wait for the enemy, built barricades throughout the city, and invested a firm resolve to crush the rebels in every cobblestone that they passed from hand to hand.

The situation had already clarified by 8:00 am, as a truly Mediterranean sun rose over the capital of Catalonia. When the Light Seventh Artillery column came out into Balmes Street at the Diagonal, loyalist Assault Guards stopped it with hand grenades, pistol fire, and musket shots. Groups holding an intersection on Claris Street blocked the other detachment of the Seventh Artillery. The rebel officers ordered their soldiers to retreat, who tucked into doorways and planted their machine-guns.

The Pedralbes infantry, protected by a squadron from the Montesa Cavalry, irrupted into the Plaza de la Universidad shouting “Long live the Republic!” This created enough confusion for them to seize several workers on guard and send part of their forces (and the captured workers) toward the university. The rest of the soldiers took off for the Plaza de Cataluña, in hopes of descending along the Ramblas, but soon encountered gunfire, which broke their military formation and caused a dispersal of troops. They occupied the Hotel Colón, the Casino Militar, the Maison Doré and, after a scuffle with Assault Guards, the telephone exchange.

The Montesa Cavalry entered the Plaza de España with a cannon operated by Captain Sancho Contreras. These soldiers also shouted “Long live the Republic!” and immediately began to take positions. This caused the same turmoil as elsewhere, which grew more intense when the Assault Guards joined the rebel soldiers. The workers reacted quickly and began firing pistols and hunting shotguns. The insurgent officers took advantage of the disorder to occupy part of the Plaza de España and distribute their troops along the Paralelo and on Cortes Street in the direction of the Plaza de la Universidad. Meanwhile, Captain Sancho Contreras placed his cannon and fired at a barricade erected in front of the Alcaldía de Hostafrancs building. He wounded nineteen, but no one ran, except to attend to the victims. People recovered from their shock and the Assault Guards abandoned their Captain and went over to the workers’ side. The din of rifle and cannon fire drew more people to the scene and the intensity of the fighting increased. The cannon fire left strips of human flesh hanging from a tree. Women threw whatever they had on hand at the troops from the balconies and shouted “assassins!” Captain Sancho Contreras had his first surprise: the “rabble” didn’t run from the cannon’s fury, but remade its defenses and continued to resist defiantly. This was no October 6!

The struggle in the Plaza de España, which was perhaps the first that really exploded that morning, created enough confusion for a rebel infantry company led by Captain López Belda to pass by. General Burriel also sped by in a car on his way to the Captaincy, where he intended to deal with Llano de la Encomienda. That was the only rebel victory.

After linking up in the Plaza de España, the soldiers from the Montesa Regiment and the Sappers took the Paralelo and then faced off against the barricade that militants from the CNT’s Woodworkers’ Union had erected at the Brecha de San Pablo. The workers turned back the soldiers, who shielded themselves with the men that they had taken prisoner earlier. This enabled them to position several machine-guns, whose gunfire nearly swept the width of the Paralelo. The workers continued fighting, despite the carnage caused by the machine-guns. They stabilized the front here. That group of rebels was thus also unable to reach its objective.

The Mountain Artillery forces that took off from the Docks soon encountered a big surprise. Using electric forklifts from the port, the workers made a gigantic barrier out of numerous huge balls of pressed paper. Then, with the support of Assault Guards, they formed a line of resistance behind them that confronted the relentless cannon fire ordered by Captain López Varela and Commander Fernando Urzué. This astonished Urzué. He had been the braggart who insisted that the “rabble” would run once they heard the cannon fire, just as they had run when he shot at the Generalitat on October 6. That was not going to happen this time, although there was enormous confusion. Shots rang out from everywhere, from the rooftops as well as the barricades. The rebels tried to protect themselves, while their mules neighed and swung from side to side under the weight of the armaments loaded upon them or simply broke into pieces when a marksman was skilled enough to hit their cargo of explosives.

The Santiago Regiment and a Civil Guard squad led by Commander Recas had to bring their advance to a halt in the “Cinc d’Ors.” Workers as well as Assault and Security Guards stopped them in their tracks. The barricades appeared immediately, as soon as the shooting ended.

There was also intense fighting around the statue of Columbus, in the area surrounding Customs, the Puerta de la Paz, the Atarazanas barracks, and Dependencias Militares. General Mola’s brother Ramón was operating out of the latter location.

There was a crossfire between Atarazanas and Dependencias Militares (which faced one another) that swept the port area and the entire width of the Rambla Santa Mónica up to the old street market of secondhand books.

Further above, militants from the Transport and Metalworkers’ unions had erected an imposing barricade across the Rambla, which effectively trapped the troops.

The local CNT and FAI Defense Committee installed its coordination post in the Plaza Arco del Teatro and used liaisons to maintain contact with the CNT Regional Committee. The latter had set up camp in the large building at 32 Vía Layetana called “Casa Cambó,” which had previously held the offices of the Ministry of Public Works. They communicated with the fighters on the Paralelo through the alleys of the Fifth District and with the area around the Palacio Plaza through the so-called Gothic Neighborhood. The CNT’s control of the Paralelo, one of the city’s principal arteries, would be a central factor in the workers’ victory, as García Oliver later noted.

By eleven in the morning, the workers had the upper hand in all the “hot spots” mentioned above.

At 9:30 am, the Mountain Artillery regiment fighting around the Palacio Plaza realized that it would not be able to advance. Before accepting complete defeat, the force’s commander ordered the troops to withdraw and try to win the barracks in the Docks. This was not going to be easy. When the soldiers began retreating, workers pushed the balls of paper that they had been using as barricades toward them, while others hidden behind opened fire. Their retreat became a complete rout. Despite the rebel machine-guns sweeping the area, the workers and Guards launched an overpowering assault and seized several officers, including López Varela, as well as a number of cannons. The soldiers, now free of their officers’ coercion, fraternized with the workers and joined them. This occurred around ten in morning, in front of Durruti, who had just arrived on scene to hear a report on the situation from the Assault Guard Captain commanding the Guards fighting with the workers there. This was the first battle that the workers won that morning. The cannons, now in the hands of impromptu artillerymen, hastened the people’s victory. The rebels managed to reach the Docks and shut themselves in the barracks there, but the workers controlled the surrounding streets and erected barricades less than one hundred meters from barracks’s main door. The siege there would last until the final assault on the building.

Unable to communicate among themselves, the rebels were in a state of confused disorder. They had established communication through France in the early hours of the morning, but when the Worker Committee that occupied the main post office on Saturday night noticed what was happening, it intercepted and altered their messages in such a way that disoriented the fascists. The insurgents were in disarray and simply did not know what was going on.

The Infantry company that departed from the Alcántara barracks ran into a group of workers at the Arco del Triunfo that prevented it from occupying the radio transmitter on Caspe Street. Its Captain, Maeztu, was rapidly losing men through desertion and injury. He ordered them to retreat to Urquinaona Plaza. They managed to take refuge in the Hotel Ritz around 10:00 am. However, Captain Maeztu had little reason for optimism, since they had entered a zone of trouble: at the intersection of Claris and Cortés, workers decided to finish off the Seventh Light’s machine-guns by driving three trucks into them at 120 kilometers per hour, running over firearms and men in the process. As soon as the rebel lines broke, the workers seized their machine-guns and quickly turned them against their old owners.

Barcelona was on fire. People roaming the streets were shot from church bell towers, bourgeois homes, or rightwing centers. Workers also erected barricades and patrolled the streets in areas outside the main centers of conflict. When they found someone shooting from a house, church, or clerical center they attacked the building on their own initiative. They burned down churches when they found a priest or priests inside firing.

Pressure from the Santiago Regiment in the “Cinc d’Ors” prompted a change in tactics. When Colonel Lacasa realized that his troops were about to be cornered, he ordered them to make a staggered retreat and take refuge in the convent next to the Carmelitas. What remained of the Santiago Regiment and Commander Recas’s Civil Guard squadron were shut in there and killed. Recas also died there during the final assault.

There was fighting in the Plaza de España, Plaza de la Universidad, and the Plaza de Cataluña. Neither side was giving an inch. The situation became extremely dangerous in the Brecha de San Pablo. Although the troops there had been unable to move forward, they had made contact with the Plaza de España and the port. It was essential to control the latter, given the potential that rebel troops might be shipped in. García Oliver, Ascaso, and Durruti met in the Plaza Arco del Teatro to talk about the issue around 9:00 in the morning.

A militant named Belmonte from the Woodworkers’ Union joined their discussion. He told them about the situation in the Brecha San Pablo, where soldiers had planted their machine-guns and driven the workers from the barricade on the Paralelo. “But the comrades didn’t give up,” he said. “They fired from the terraces and doorways, from anywhere that they could get at the enemy. However, the situation is difficult and we have to rid ourselves of those machine-guns that are pinning us down.” Sergeants Manzana and Gordo were also present. They had failed to take Atarazanas and had been forced to escape through the gate opening onto Montserrat although, fortunately, they had been able to grab some boxes of rifle ammunition and machine-gun ribbons as they fled.

Antonio Ortiz and Aurelio Fernández came to participate in the conversation as well. The latter had parted with his ironed jacket. His shirt, once white, now clung to his body, yellowed by gunpowder.

“They’re shooting from the Hotel Falcón,” they said while approaching the group.

“And they’ll roast us with bullets if we don’t respond soon,” Durruti replied.

They stormed the hotel and cleaned out the rebel marksmen. When the area around the Plaza Arco del Teatro became clear again, they decided to move an available machine-gun to the balcony of the building holding the Casa Juan restaurant in order to attack Dependencias Militares from there. They gave this task to Sergeants Manzana and Gordo, who operated with the support of militants from the Transport Workers’ Union.

“What should we do about the Brecha?” Belmonte asked.

“We’re going to clean it out,” Ascaso said.

They gathered the best-armed militants among those present and formed two groups. One, led by García Oliver, would take off along San Pablo Street; the other would go up Nueva de la Rambla Street, with Ascaso at its head. Durruti would remain in the Plaza, coordinating forces and leading them to wherever they were needed most.

The situation was very delicate in the Brecha de San Pablo. The rebels had installed three machine-guns: one, opposite the Teatro Victoria, another next to the Moulin Rouge cabaret, and the final one in the Brecha de San Pablo itself, which they fired relentlessly. The comrades going with Ascaso along Nueva de la Rambla Street were an easy target when they came out into the Paralelo. They tried to take cover in doorways or behind any object they could find while continuing to fire their pistols. The fascists would have massacred them if García Oliver’s group had not slipped around behind the enemy. The rebels were now caught between the two groups and completely disoriented. The militants who had been holding them down until then responded promptly and everyone launched a mass attack. A burst of gunfire from Ascaso’s automatic pistol brought down the Captain leading the troops. A Lieutenant tried to take his place, but a Cavalry Corporal killed him at once. This ended the resistance in the Brecha de San Pablo. A historian sympathetic to the rebels concludes his account of this battle in the following way: “Darnell [the Captain] and his forces held the positions that they had captured . . . until the masses physically overcame them and annihilated the squadron. The officers were taken prisoner and suffered the unfortunate fate reserved for them.”

By noon that day, the military insurrection in Barcelona was essentially over. The remaining holdouts were clearly identified: Hotel Colón-Telephone exchange, Universidad-Plaza de España, Atarazanas-Dependencias Militares, and the Carmelitas convent in the northern part of the city. That was all.

Republican Colonel Díaz Sandino ordered his planes to make an exploratory flight and also to drop pamphlets on the barracks telling the soldiers that the coup had failed and that they had to surrender. While Díaz Sandino’s planes cut through the blue space over the city, five hydroplanes coming from Majorca landed at Barcelona’s naval base. One of them carried General Goded, who inspected the Catalan capital from above before landing.