A lot has been written about the II World War thanks to documents, witnesses, books, and movies, we can say that nowadays it is a chapter of our history that belongs to our general culture. However, there is no doubt that – being such a great and important story with thousands of documents about it available – there are still parts of it that we do not know yet because of the fact that they are impressed nowhere but in the minds of those who lived it in the first place and that cannot tell about them any longer as they are not among us anymore. Sometimes, it also happens that these stories are not left aside by chance, but that in a certain historical moment it seems to be more convenient to put the accent on others and leave these ones hidden.
It could also be it is not exactly like this, but it looks like it is the case of the story of La Nueve (the Nine). What’s La Nueve? Neither I did know the existence of this division of the French Army that was the first entering Paris and free the city from the nazis on 24th August 1944. And why this division was so particular? Well, the fact is that, despite being commanded by a French general and part of la France Libre (“free France”) Charles De Gaulle’s French Army, this division was not composed by French soldiers but – in great majority – by Spanish ones.
“How can it be?” is the legitimate and spontaneous question of those who do not know this story, not much known to say the truth also in Spain.
One thing that is often forgotten when we talk of the II World War is that among the soldiers in the Allied armies, there were many that were coming from countries that were not even involved in the war and that were fighting just for their ideals of freedom and democracy: among these countries, Spain was the most represented one.
How did it happen that people from Spain got enrolled in the French army? To tell this story, well told in the book “La Nueve – los españoles que liberaron Paris” by E. Mesquida (1), we have to go further back in the past until 1936, the year of the start of the Spanish civil war and the majority of these boys – that will later become soldiers of La Nueve – was less than 20 years old. Back at that time, in Spain there was the so-called Spanish Second Republic, born a few years before – in 1931 – after the death of the dictator Primo de Rivera, the fall of his successor Aznar-Cabañas and the escape of the king Alfonso XIII. In 1936, the Republic got put in danger by the advance of general Francisco Franco who went up the Iberic peninsula with his troops starting from Morocco (back then a Spanish protectorate) and, with the help of the Italian, German and Portuguese armies (respectively sent to Spain by Mussolini, Hitler, and Salazar), conquered Spain and nominated himself “caudillo“. A the end of the war, in 1939, the defeated volunteers of the Popular Front that fought against Franco’s troops as well as civilians, women, and children from all over Spain started escaping towards France in mass, in a desperate exodus that will later get known as “la Retirada” (“the retreat“).
This migration was much larger than what the French government had forecast. Since France could not – and did not want to – let these people with nothing but themselves get in, the border with Spain got closed by the French authorities initially, but then – due to the pressure exerted by the people that were escaping from Franco’s bombs (Franco had ordered a “rigorous and severe cleaning” towards them, as will later write the Italian fascist Galeazzo Ciano) and the one exerted by the international public opinion, it got opened again. As the French government was expecting fewer refugees, only some barracks that could accommodate up to a maximum of 6000 people had been prepared: in few days arrived in France around 500’000 of them. Among these, were also those that later will be the soldiers of La Nueve.
These Spanish refugees got separated from their own families and friends and enclosed in around 20 camps spread in all the south-west of France and, since no accommodation had been prepared for them, they had to stay outdoor with no shelter, watched by guards in order not to have the chance of getting out of the camp. Some of those who had fought during the civil war were imprisoned in special jails because they were considered to be “dangerous extremists”.
In the imminence of the outbreak of the II World War, many refugees got sent to Africa and then, once the filo-nazist Vichy government took the power in France, they were sent to work to infrastructures like the trans-saharian railway, in slavery conditions.
After the disembarkation of the Allied in North America in 1943, the prisoners of French camps got freed. The Spanish ones were taken in front of a decision to take: either get sent back to Spain or enter in the French legion; the great majority of those who had fought during the civil war opted for getting enrolled in the legion.
At that moment, there was already a part of the army that was not responding anymore to the command of the filo-nazist Vichy’s government led by the general Philippe Pétain for it had already joined the call of the General Charles De Gaulle, creating the army of “la France libre” (the Free France”), under the operative command of General Leclerc. More and more Spanish started deserting the french legion to join Leclerc’s troops and fight on the same side of the Allied. After the battles of Algeri, those in Libia and the one in Tunis, in which they faced notorious Rommel’s Afrika-Korps, this part of the army that was (successfully) fighting in Africa was transferred to Morocco (back then Morocco was a French colony). Here the Deuxiéme Division Blindée (Second Armoured Division) born, In this division, most of the soldiers were not French but Spanish, and within this division was also the unit of La Nueve, almost entirely composed by Spanish (146 out of 160 soldiers),
From there, they have been sent to Pocklington, England, to get trained before going to fight in Europe and to get ready for the disembarkment in France. When the order came, they left from the port of Southampton to get to Normandie, where they disembarked on 1st August 1944 on the beach of La Madelaine in front of the village of Saint-Mere l’Eglise. From here on they started fighting together with the American troops with the objective of freeing France, moving South. fighting and winning as in the battle of Ecouché.
After this battle, the troops of La Nueve started moving rapidly towards the East. At that moment, the intention of the Americans was to slow down the French troops: both armies in fact wanted to be the first to reach the capital.
Hence, when General Leclerc took the decision of keeping on going with his troops towards Paris, he was well aware of the order given by the American general Gerow that had expressly specified that La Nueve would have had to conquer the position at the height of the bridges on the Seine without entering in the capital, and that – in case of encountering the resistance of the enemy – they should have stopped and wait for the American infantry. That point is reached, the fight for the honor and glory for being the first entering the capital was an open challenge between French and Americans. Therefore, when the soldiers of La Nueve got to Antony – just outside Paris – and encountered the troops of the enemy defending it, Leclerc had no doubt on what to do: he did not stop his troops, gave the order of attacking and succeded on making enter two units of Spanish soldiers in the city. The first unit to enter and arrive at the town hall on 24th August 1944 was the one led by lieutenant Amado Granell, from Burriana (a village in the Valencian Autonomous Community). The day after, the face of Amado Granell was printed on the first page of the newspaper Libération straight under the heading “Il sont arrivés” (“they have arrived”) (2). Shortly after, also the other units arrived at the town hall as well as the fire from the German troops that were trying to re-take control of the city. After a quick crossfire, the Spanish units that had just arrived together with the units of the French resistance that were already occupying the building neutralized the enemy. Finally. they could give the news that the goal had been met and call for reinforcements from the town hall. During the morning, the Second Armoured Division (with more than 3000 Republican Spanish soldiers) entered Paris and, together with the French partisans, freed the French capital: at half-past three in the afternoon, was given the cease the fire.
Saturday 26th August 1944, La Nueve received the military honors and got saluted by General De Gaulle as acknowledgment for having been the first to enter the capital. The celebrative parade on the Champs Elysées was opened by Amado Granell and the escort of De Gaulle was composed of four half-tracks of La Nueve that were named after battles of the Spanish Civil War like Guernica, Teruel, and Guadalajara. Soldiers were not showing only the France Libre flag but also small Spanish Republican flags as well as one of more than 20 meters long. Many French generals did not like much this and, after some days of rest at the Bois de Boulogne that had been converted into a military camp, the order of retiring the Spanish Republican flags and starting the march again was given.
On the 9th of September, the march towards East started. Together with the American troops, La Nueve fought in Andelot, Catel, Vaxoncourt, and in other villages between France and Germany, until entering Strasbourg and taking place in the vanguard. However, some internal political battles impeded La Nueve from crossing the Rhine for the moment, in the meantime, they were sent and fight in other battles such as the one in Grussenheim, more South in today’s French-German border. Finally, the internal situation got unblocked and the Second Armoured Division got incorporated in the VII American army, the same army they had already previously fought together with, and started moving quickly towards the foot of the Alps. At that point of the route, it was clear to everyone that the objective was Bershtesgaden, the location of the Berghof, Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest.
Once close to the destination, they had to face units of young SS that were keeping on fighting to death until, after 36 hours of battle, La Nueve finally arrived in Berschtesgaden on the 5th May. However, there they found out that the Americans had already arrived earlier as they came from another side. Still, they noticed that the Eagle’s Nest – that was above Berschtesgaden – had not been conquered yet. Captain Tuyeras, that was french and jew, decided to start to ascend the mountain and, on the 6th May, arrived with his soldiers at the Eagle’s Nest that was 3 km far from the village, later allowing only to reach it only to French troops – La Nueve included – so to put the French signature to the conquest of the famous Hitler’s chalet.
Finally, also the Americans got there. Initially, they were disappointed by the French conquest, but the climate got more relaxed as many champagne bottles were found in the basement of the chalet and the soldiers could celebrate all together drinking the wine from glasses having the initials A.H. printed on. Shortly after, also the long-awaited news arrived: war was over.
Still, for some of them, this was not the true end of the war but just the end of a chapter of a fight that had to continue later on in Spain. However, in this last part of the path, the great part of the Spanish soldiers had died and – among those that got to the Eagle’s Nest – there were only sixteen Spanish left: together with those that had fallen on the way, fell also the hope of going back to the fight to free Spain.
(1) Mesquida E., La Nueve – los españoles que liberaron Paris, Barcelona, Penguin Rangom House Grupo Editorial S.A.U., 2016