Repression and exile: landmarks of the Civil War in Alicante

Alicante was the last major city to fall to Franco’s Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War, just two days before the end of the conflict.

And although the city was never one of the main battlefronts – nothing to compare with the struggle for Madrid or the street battles of Barcelona – the war left an enduring mark on the city. Many Alicantinos are determined to remember and preserve what they can of the Civil War legacy; here’s a guide to some of the key landmarks.

The port: Alicante’s refugees and the Stanbrook story

In the final days of the war, Alicante port was crammed with thousands of refugees from all over Republican Spain, waiting for the evacuation ships that never came. One of the few vessels that did make it into Alicante through Franco’s blockade was the British steamship Stanbrook.

Stanbrook
The Stanbrook crammed with refugees, March 1939

Her Cardiff-born captain Archibald Dickson decided to abandon his cargo on the dockside and took more than 2,600 refugees to safety in North Africa. A bust on the Muelle de Levante, just across the road from the Explanada, remembers Dickson and his heroic crew.

Captain Archibald Dickson
The bust of Captain Dickson on the Muelle de Levante in Alicante port, garlanded with flowers on the 80th anniversary of the Stanbrook rescue.

Read more about the Stanbrook rescue in my post here.

Those refugees who failed to get away – an estimated 15,000 – received little mercy from the victorious Franco forces, who took the city on March 30, 1939. It’s worth mentioning that the first Nationalist troops into Alicante were actually Italians, part of the 80,000-strong force Mussolini sent to fight for Franco.

Italian troops occupy Alicante, March 1939
The Italian Littorio Division took Alicante; the photo shows Italian troops massed around the port. The cars were abandoned by those desperate to get away. Picture: Archivo Municipal de Alicante

Campo de Los Almendros

Many refugees were herded into a makeshift concentration camp in La Goteta, then on the outskirts of Alicante, just off the present-day Avenida de Denia. Known as Campo de Los Almendros (Field of Almond Trees) it was just that: a huge open field with no shelter, little water and almost no food. Some starving prisoners were reduced to eating the leaves from the trees.

Terrible as it was, Los Almendros was only a temporary camp; many were transferred from there to the permanent Albatera concentration camp near Orihuela, which was no picnic either. 

Modern Alicante has expanded and el Campo de Los Almendros is now mostly overlooked by medical clinics and a sports centre, but there is a little park and a memorial stone to mark the place of so much suffering. 

Campo de Los Almendros
The memorial to those imprisoned in the Campo de Los Almendros concentration camp immediately after the fall of Alicante. The stone stands in the shade of a symbolic almond tree.

Other prisoners were taken to the city’s bull ring or the Castillo de Santa Barbara and other locations around Alicante. Women and children were herded into the Ideal Cinema (below), still an imposing building on the Avenida de la Constitución, but closed up and semi-derelict now.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_8765-e1556817747319.jpg

Miguel Hernández

Miguel Hernández was one of the best known Spanish poets of the 20th century. Not as famous internationally as Garcia Lorca or Machado – full disclosure, I wasn’t aware of his work until recently –  but this was a man who wrote heartbreakingly beautiful verse.

Miguel Hernandez
The poet Miguel Hernández, who died in prison in Alicante in 1942. Picture: Wikimedia via Creative Commons

Hernández may actually have been among the those crowds of refugees in Alicante desperately trying to get out of Spain on March 28, 1939, the day the Stanbrook sailed. He was not one of the lucky ones, and was arrested a few days later trying to cross the border into Portugal.

Miguel Hernández con Antonio Aparicio (R) y Juan Arroyo (L), en Barcelona. Enero del 37. (2)
Miguel Hernández (centre) with fellow poets Antonio Aparicio (right) and Juan Arroyo, 1937

As an active Republican – he’d even gone to Russia as a cultural envoy during the war – he felt the full force of Francoist repression. Originally sentenced to death, this was commuted to 30 years in prison. For Miguel Hernández, tragically, that amounted to pretty much the same thing.

He died of tuberculosis in prison in Alicante in 1942, three years to the day after the Stanbrook sailed. There’s a striking memorial outside the Reformatorio de Los Adultos where he died (now the Palacio de Justicia) on Calle Santa Maria Mazzarelo.

Memorial to Miguel Hernández, Alicante
The memorial to Miguel Hernández, outside the Palacio de Justicia in Alicante. The building was formerly the prison in which the poet died in 1942.
Miguel Hernández, Murales de San Isidro
An image of Miguel Hernández, in his home town of Orihuela near Alicante. Part of the Murales de San Isidro, an amazing collection of murals painted by artists using his poetry as inspiration.

Miguel’s last collection of poems, Cancionero y romancero de ausencias (Songs and Ballads of Absence) was written in prison, much of it on scraps of paper or in letters to his wife Josefina. Perhaps the most famous is “Nanas de la Cebolla” (Lullabies of the Onion), dedicated to his baby son after his wife told him she had nothing to eat except bread and onions.

His last lines were written on the prison hospital wall as he lay dying: Adiós hermanos, camaradas, amigos: despedidme del sol y de los trigos – Goodbye brothers, comrades, friends: say farewell for me to the sun and the wheat fields.

He was 31 years old.  

He is buried in Alicante city cemetery (Cementerio de Nuestra Señora del Remedio on Camino Alcoraya), alongside his wife and second son. 

The grave of Miguel Hernández, Alicante cemetery
The grave of Miguel Hernández in Alicante cemetery, on the anniversary of his death, 2019. On the right are lines from Llegó con Tres Heridas (He Came with Three Wounds): ‘One of love, one of death and one of life.’ On the left, from his poem Carta (Letter): ‘Even though my loving body is beneath the ground, write to me in the earth, so I may write to you’

Alicante Cemetery (Cementerio Municipal)

The cemetery is an emotional place to visit, with so many victims of the war buried there.

Many were interred in common graves – those who were victims of the many air raids on the city and those were were executed by Francoist firing squads. 724 people were shot in Alicante province between 1939 and 1945, AFTER the war was actually over. That bears repeating – after the war was over.

Alicante cemetery Republican memorial
This memorial in Alicante cemetery remembers “more than 700 Republicans shot by Franco forces in Alicante province between 1939-45, most of them buried here in common graves, which also contain the bodies of those killed by the bombing of Alicante market by Italian aircraft on May 25, 1938.”

There were undoubtedly killings by Republicans in Alicante province, especially during the first chaotic months following the Nationalist coup d’etat (most famously José Antonio Primo de Rivera, of whom more below).

But the scale of the Francoist repression after the war was savage, even more so for being a coldly calculated instrument of state terror. For anyone who doubts this, I recommend “The Spanish Holocaust” by Paul Preston, probably the leading historian currently writing on the Civil War. 

Head towards Cuadro 12, where the common graves lie, and see the touching little personal memorials put there by families of the dead, and notice how many times the word ‘fusilado‘ (shot) appears on the gravestones.

Or look at the memorial to those executed from the little town of Aspe, near Elche, and think of the terrible impact the repression must have had on that community.

Aspe memorial Alicante cemetery
The memorial to those shot after the war by Francoist forces in the little town of Aspe near Elche.

Aspe had a population of 7,500 in 1936. Twenty three were shot by firing squad in the two years after the war, and 12 died in prison. Plenty more served long jail terms, as this depressingly detailed study makes clear.

Memorial cementerio Alicante
The memorial reads; ‘at dawn on November 15, 1939, the military forces that rebelled against the Second Republic shot these defenders of liberty and buried them in this common grave’ The verse above the names is from a Miguel Hernández poem ‘El Tren de Los Heridos’ (Train of the Wounded). ‘Silence, wrecked in the silence of closed mouths during the night… Never ceases to be silent or to pass through… It speaks the drowned language of the dead’

Yes, there are also graves of Nationalists killed by Republicans during the war. In the worst killing, 49 right wingers were taken out and shot in November 1936 in reprisal for a Francoist bombing raid on Alicante.

Some Nationalist victims are buried in the cemetery church, originally named the Panteón de los Caídos por Dios y por España (Pantheon of those who fell for God and Spain).

Alicante cemetery church
Iglesia del Cementerio, Alicante

But the best-known fascist to be buried in the cemetery is now not there at all.

José Antonio Primo de Rivera

José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of Spain’s fascist party, the Falange, was executed by firing squad in Alicante in the early months of the war. The son of Spain’s former military dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera, he’d actually been arrested before the Nationalist rebellion began in July 1936, and charged with the illegal possession of firearms. He’d made no bones about embracing violent means to overthrow the Republic.

José Antonio Primo de Rivera
José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange, Spain’s Fascist party. Sentenced to death and shot in Alicante in the first year of the war. Source: Wikimedia via Creative Commons

It was his bad luck to be transferred to prison in Alicante, a staunchly Republican area, and he was still being held there when the war started. Despite attempts to rescue him, he was put on trial for inciting rebellion and shot by firing squad at dawn on November 20, 1936.

He was buried in the common grave in Alicante cemetery, alongside those who died in the city’s air raids. There is still a memorial to him there, in the Falangist colours of black and red, on the same ground where so many victims of his particular brand of political poison still lie.

José Antonio memorial, Alicante cemetery
Memorial to José Antonio Primo de Rivera, leader of the Spanish fascists, in Alicante cemetery. His body was taken out of the common grave at the end of the war and now lies in Franco’s war memorial, Valle de los Caídos, outside Madrid.

Once the war was over, his body was disinterred (though how exactly they found his body among all the others in the common grave is still open to debate) and his coffin was carried on the shoulders of members of the fascist Falange to El Escorial, near Madrid.

José Antonio is one of only two named people buried in Franco’s war memorial, Valle de Los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), the other being – unsurprisingly – Franco himself. But maybe not for much longer.

In a rather pathetic attempt to avoid the notoriety of being known as the city that shot the fascist leader, Alicante’s government did some serious grovelling immediately after the war, offering to rename the city “Alicante de José Antonio“. Fortunately perhaps, the offer was rejected. It would have been a final insult to the dead.

© Guy Pelham 2019

If you’d like to know more about the impact of the Civil War in Alicante province, try these posts:

With thanks to the Comisión Civica para la Recuperación de la Memoria Historica (Commission for the Recovery of Historical Memory) in Alicante, which keeps alive the memory of the Civil War and the Francoist repression that followed.

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