Forced labour, cruel punishment and big business

More than 30,000 people worked as slaves in the Campo de Gibraltar between 1939 and 1943. They were Republican prisoners and were used as captive labour to build a whole series of infrastructures for the ‘Plan to Fortify the Straits’.

Suffering from hunger, cold, illnesses and in all weathers, the prisoners used picks and spades to create a network of roads, fortifications, artillery batteries, tunnels, electricity stations, fuel pumps, two hospitals and all types of installations to control the Straits of Gibraltar and combat the allies in the Second World War. This way, the Franco regime was killing two birds with one stone: it inflicted cruel punishment on those who lost the civil war and saved money on the works needed for its military plans.

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Many of the roads were built by Republican prisoners

The inhabitants of the Campo de Gibraltar still benefit today from the work carried out between Conil and Estepona by Republican prisoners, who were used as slaves. They built, with their own hands, a network of roads along the coast and into the countryside which are still in use today. Thousands of people drive their cars, motorbikes, lorries or vans along some of them: the one from Algeciras to Getares beach and the lighthouse at Punta Carnero, for example; the ones which connect the N-340 highway to Bolonia and Punta Paloma, in Tarifa; the stretch from Jimena to Atajate on the San Roque to Ronda road; and the one from Castellar to Sotogrande. All these roads and others are the legacy of the work carried out by men who were punished for the single crime of defending democracy, justice and freedom. Let us not forget that, or them.

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Thousands of slaves for useless military projects

The works to fortify the Straits, which had begun in 1939, ended in 1943 just as the Nazis began to lose the war after the push by the Soviet Union. Franco realized that there was no longer any sense in supporting Germany and, to justify his about-turn in favour of the US and the Allies, began to say that the works were merely for defence purposes. The western powers had no plans to invade Spain, but the works remained in place. Machine-gun nests, bunkers, roads and tracks, all vestiges of a terrible story: that of the tens of thousands of people who created them through their slave labour, their effort and a sacrifice which has never been recognized.


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Alongside Hitler

Most of the prisoners who worked on the works to fortify the Straits came from the north of Spain. The Franco regime therefore isolated them in two ways: from their families and their closest social contacts. This was an extra cruelty on top of the dreadful conditions in which they were living. Suffering from malnutrition and weakened by illnesses, many of them died. And all to satisfy another of Franco’s ambitions: to enter the Second World War alongside Hitler, invade Gibraltar, control the Straits and take over the French colonies in North Africa. That was the real objective of the works which began in May 1939, months before Germany invaded Poland and World War II began.

Franco’s initial objective was to attack the British base of Gibraltar and close the Straits to maritime traffic. This military operation, as we have seen, started to take shape several months before September 1939, which was when Germany invaded Poland and World War II officially began. It was also prior to the later operations to occupy the Rock of Gibraltar which were planned by the Italian-German axis, such as Operation Félix in July/August 1940, Operation Illona in 1942 and Operation Gisela in 1943.

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The guerrillas continued to fight until the 1950s

After the war in Spain was over, hundreds of anti-Franco guerrillas fought in the mountains of the Campo de Gibraltar from Tarifa to Ronda. In the hope that western democracies would help to overcome Franco after the end of World War II, they fought against the dictatorship with the aim of re-establishing the Republic. They didn’t stop until the 1950s, by which time the western powers had already forgotten about Spain. They, however, did not forget. As late as 1949, communists and anarchists set up the General Staff of the Fermín Galán Guerrillera Group, in the Sierra de Las Cabras, in the north-east of Cádiz province.

The first to swell the ranks of guerrillas were numerous militants from unions and left-wing parties who, fleeing from Francoist repression, had gone to live in the mountains before the war ended. They were popularly known as ‘los huidos’, the fugitives.

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The end of guerrilla activity

Bernabé López Calle, known as ‘Comandante Abril’ and Pablo Pérez Hidalgo, ‘Manolo el Rubio’, were the leaders of the Fermín Galán Guerrilla Group. The former was an activist with the CNT anarchist union and the latter from the Communist Party of Spain (PCE). Some of the members were socialists, and others republicans.

This group came to an end with a killing in Algatocín (Málaga). The Guardia Civil colluded with the owners of a large house in which the guerrillas often used to eat. Officers hid in the roof and shot them at point-blank range as they dined. The isolation of their lifestyle, the actions of the Guardia Civil, the reprisals against their families, the betrayals and the lack of outside assistance put an end to guerrilla activity in Andalucía. Many combatants died during the fight and others succumbed to the long night of Francoism, but they all tried to bring back to Spain the light of social justice and freedom which the Republic had also brought to the Campo de Gibraltar.

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