The hazards of being British abroad

“I do not at all underrate the severity of the ordeal which lies before us; but I believe our countrymen will show themselves capable of standing up to it, like the brave men of Barcelona.”

Winston Churchill, June 18, 1940

Lots of things that happened in the Spanish Civil War set the scene for the tactics that would be user on a far grander scale in the Second World War.

One of these was the bombing of civilians. Guernica is the example made famous by Picasso of ordinary people being bombed from the air in Spain. But Barcelona was one of the first cities to suffer attempted urbicide – the killing of an entire city. The front of this war wasn’t in Barcelona. Nevertheless Italian aeroplanes, ultimately accountable to Mussolini’s fascist government, flew over the Mediterranean from Italian-held Majorca until they hit land.

That land was Barcelona, surrounded on all sides by mountains. Without the sophisticated targetting systems we have today, bombs were literally offloaded in the general vicinity of the docks, government buildings and fortifications. The people were helpless to fight back, and so they proactively took measures to protect themselves, designing and collectively building the first air raid shelters, or refugis.

There were 1,300 shelters built in Barcelona and though lots are now car parks and underground stations, there are a couple that are intact. So I went to visit one called Refugi 307, in Poble Sec.

The poor woman at the kiosk got herself into a right flap, because the tours are only run in Catalan or Spanish, and I was neither. She asked me which tour I prefered, and since I speak neither language and would just have to concentrate hard on understanding whatever, I went for the Catalan. Which confused her even more, so she went scuttling off to find me something with English on it.

It was fascinating, and even the twenty per cent I understood, was really enlightening. And had a British angle because once the Spanish Civil War was over in 1939, and Franco established, in charge and recognised by all European nations as the legitimate government, we borrowed the architect of these shelters, a Catalan man named Ramon Perera, to help us build air raid shelters in London to survive the Blitz.

In that light it was understandable that half of the shelter I visited had been finished by Franco’s supporters, because he expected Britain, France and the US, in their fight against fascism, to attempt to overthrow him too.

But we didn’t. And Spain lived with their fascist dictator until 1975.

Maybe this is why this period of history is glossed over in our school studies of the period…

‘Why have you come here?’ the guide asked me in English at the end.

‘Because we don’t learn about the Spanish Civil War in our country, and it interests me because lots of people from my country came here to join in.’

He then explained to me about Ramon Perera in English, to make sure I had heard and understood it. It was yet another conversation that left me feeling uncomfortable with our national track record abroad.

‘It’s ironic you helped us with our war effort, when we sort of abandoned you…’ I began.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘And that’s not the first time. In 1714 you sold Catalonia out too.’ And then he launched into all the political decisions we made that worked out badly for the province over the past three hundred years.

‘Umm… I’m sorry.’ I mumbled, wishing it carried the weight of a proper political apology.

What else can you say?


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