Paris honours the forgotten Spanish fighters who liberated the French capital

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Paris was officially freed from Nazi occupation on 25 August, 77 years ago. "Paris is liberated by itself, by its people," General Charles de Gaulle declared the following day. But the first Allied vehicles to drive into the city belonged to the 9th company known as La Nueve, and the vast majority of its members were Spanish Republican fighters.

"You cannot commemorate the liberation of Paris unless you start with the story of the men of La Neuve, and with this ceremony of 24 August," said the city's mayor Anne Hidalgo on Wednesday.

The Spanish-born mayor hosted the now-annual ceremony in City Hall's "Jardin des Combattants de la Nueve" (Garden of the Ninth Company Fighters), alongside a representative of the Spanish government and descendents of those who fought.

The story of La Neuve is little known in French history and it was only in 2004 that Paris officially recognised the company's contribution to its liberation.

La Nueve (meaning ninth in Spanish) was the 9th company of the Régiment de Marche du Tchad, part of the 2nd Armoured Division (2DB) commanded by General Philippe Leclerc.

The vast majority, 146 of the 160-strong unit, were republicans: communists and anarchists who had cut their teeth fighting against Franco's dictatorship.

Trained in guerilla warware, they proved invaluable fighters, serving under the command of Captain Raymond Dronne.

"Some of them were even anti-militarists, but they were good soldiers, courageous and experienced warriors," said Dronne.

Whilst they were part of the French army, the company was allowed to stich the red, yellow and purple flag of Spain's second republic on their uniforms.

They even painted the flag on their half-track armoured vehicles which bore names reminiscent of home . . . Madrid, Teruel, Guernica, Guadalajara and Ebro.

Triumphant entry

The company, led by Spanish Lieutenant Amado Granell, was the first to enter Paris on 24 August through the Porte d'Italie, south of the city.

While waiting for Dietrich von Choltitz (the Nazi military governor of Paris) to surrender, La Nueve was sent on a scouting mission to approach the city.

"Ebro" was the first tank to reach City Hall at around 9:30 pm, firing shots against a German machine-gun nest.

"They were welcomed as liberators, the bells rang out, but Parisiens took them for Americans because all the equipment was American," says Juan Chica Ventura, grandson of a Nueve anarchist fighter.

On 25 August, the bulk of the allied troops, led by General de Gaulle, entered Paris in triumph and La Neuve escorted the general during his famous parade down the Champs-Elysées.

While more than 50 of the company's members received the Croix de Guerre for bravery, the fighters did not feature in de Gaulle's victory speech.

"Paris is outraged. Paris is destroyed. Paris is martyred," he said. "But Paris is liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the armies of France."

Long forgotten

For years La Nueve's contribution to the liberation of Paris was ignored and the ending of Nazi occupation presented as an altogether French triumph.

There were political reasons for this at the time.

"France had resisted but had also been collaborationist," Anne Hidalgo said during the ceremony. "At the end of the war there was a risk that France wouldn’t be recognised as a power in the same way as the Allies. General de Gaulle understood that risk."

The fighters themselves did not seek the limelight.

"They didn’t push that forward, didn’t dare make it known," says Mar y Luz Carina Lopez whose father Angel Carina Lopez was a gunner on the "Guernica" half-track armoured vehicle.

"My father said nothing to me about what happened. I discovered more in 2010 when the Spanish port of Carino where he was born paid tribute to him. Lots of republican fighters didn't talk about it."

In August 2004, spurred on by Hidalgo, who was then deputy-mayor, Paris officially paid tribute to the division, inaugurating a plaque "To the Spanish Republicans, main component of the Dronne column".

In February 2010, the city awarded the Grande Médaille de Vermeil to the company's survivors: Manuel Fernandez, Luis Royo Ibanez and Raphael Gomez Nieto.

Gomez, the last remaining survivor, died in 2020 after contracting Covid-19 in a hospital in Strasbourg. He was 99.

The work of remembrance

With no surviving members, it is all the more important to bring the story of La Nueve to the fore for future generations.

That memorial work is being actively done by the 24 August association "so that people know that there was opposition to fascism both inside and outside the country," says Juan Chica Ventura.

"There are now 12 plaques around the city tracing the route La Nueve took from Porte d'Italie through to City Hall, via rue Esquirol."

In 2019 Ventura painted a 20m high fresco on the wall in that street tracing the three days of the liberation of Paris from 24 to 26 August "to update the story of these forgotten soldiers".

He says the association is "also working hard to get the story of La Nueve into school text books so that the younger generation understands that Spain wasn't just a dictatorship but that people were also fighting against it, from abroad."

Asked whether her father would have appreciated the 24 August commemoration, Mar y Luz says: "What matters to me is these men defended certain values — freedom, anti-fascism, reconciling people.

"The commemoration allows us to bring those values to the fore. It’s important, and all the more important today when you see the rise of certain ideologies."

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