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 its marks on the city, still visible eight decades later. 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: 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. As of 2019, there are plans to turn it into a hotel, while preserving the facade.
Miguel Hernández: Alicante’s Civil War poet
Miguel Hernández was one of the outstanding Spanish poets of the 20th century. Not as famous internationally as Garcia Lorca or Machado, but this was a man who wrote heartbreakingly beautiful verse.
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.
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.
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.
For more on Miguel Hernández, his life and poetry, try my post here
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.
Killings did happen on both sides. There were undoubtedly atrocities committed by Republicans in Alicante province during the conflict, especially during the first chaotic months following the Nationalist rebellion – which, let’s not forget, was a military coup against a democratically elected government. The most famous casualty was Falange leader 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 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.
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.
But to pretend – as right wingers in Spain still do – that there was some kind of equivalence between the murderous Franco regime, and the excesses of the Republican side following the Nationalist coup d’etat, is simply a travesty of history.
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).
But the best-known fascist to be buried in the cemetery is now not there at all.
José Antonio Primo de Rivera
The founder of Spain’s fascist party, the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, 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.
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.
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.
Until October 2019, José Antonio was one of only two named people buried in Franco’s war memorial, Valle de Los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), the other being – to nobody’s great surprise – Franco himself.
Not any more though. Amid much controversy, the old dictator’s coffin was forcibly removed in October 2019, by order of the socialist government of Pedro Sánchez, and buried in a family vault.
Immediately after the war ended, 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, 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
If you’d like to know more about the impact of the Civil War in Alicante province, try these posts:
- The story of the Stanbrook: the British ship which rescued thousands from the Alicante dockside.
- How Alicante suffered from air raids during the Civil War
- Gateway to exile: the secret HQ of the Republican government during the final days of the war
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.