La Nueve: The Spanish Republicans who liberated Paris

August 24th marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the capital of France. A milestone of the Second World War in which the Spanish Republicans in exile were key, although history has not been entirely fair to them.

On the night of August 24, 1944, after five years of war and two years of Nazi occupation, allied troops entered Paris to liberate the city. Led by a group that came to be known as La Nueve (The 9th Company of France’s 2nd Armoured Division) a unit formed mostly by exiled Spanish Republicans, whose mission was to occupy the centre of the city and make way for the rest of the French and U.S. divisions. The brigade was made up of exiled Spaniards who were forced to leave Spain during and after the Civil War, and after many of them were sent to concentration camps, they joined the French Army to combat Nazism and fight for what their own country had lost: freedom.

This Saturday, August 24, is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Paris. A milestone of the Second World War in which Spaniards were protagonists, despite the fact that history has often ignored them. In the words of Captain Dronne, they were “proud and impetuous" men whose role in the history of Spain and Europe deserves to be remembered with pride.

Some of the Spanish Republicans who were members of La Nueve.

From exile to the French Army

During and after the Spanish Civil War, many young soldiers who defended the Second Spanish Republic went into exile in France and ended up joining military units. The French Foreign Legion was the main destination of these exiles, most of whom came from the concentration camps of Algelés sur-Mer.

With the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939, and France's entry into war with Germany, the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion (13 DBLE), composed mainly of Spanish Republicans, was sent to Norway to support the government against the Nazis. Although the French high command decided to withdraw from Norway to reinforce the interior of France, the 13th DBLE won the battle of Narvik, although it ended with 119 deaths, 29 of them Spanish. The first Nazi defeat by Spanish Republicans.

Meanwhile, Hitler entered Paris and, after the Armistice with Germany on June 22, 1940, France was divided in two: part of the country was occupied by the Nazis and the other part was ruled by Marshal Petain from Vichy. But from this, a third France emerged: a Free France, following Charles de Gaulle's speech on the BBC on June 18, 1940.

Defending a Free France

After De Gaulle's speech, the soldiers of the 13th DBLE, mostly Spanish, joined Free France. Partisans, other French military units, and southern French guerrillas, including Spanish Republicans, also began to join. The 13th DBLE was integrated into the 1st Infantry Division of Free France, whose first operations were carried out in Africa. This division, which was part of the 1st Light Division and in the 8th English Army under the command of General Montgomery, fought for Eritrea, Palestine, Syria and Libya, until defeating the Germans and Italians in the battle of El Alamein.

For his part, in August 1940, the commander Philipe Leclerc, with his unit L Force (better known as Leclerc’s Division), arrived in Cameroon and Gabon to defend the Free France cause, forming the Régiment de marche du Tchad the origins of La Nueve and the regiment of the 2nd Armoured Division made up primarily of Spanish republicans. Leclerc's Division ascended from Cameroon, Gabon, Chad and Libya to participate in the attack on Tunisia alongside the 13th DBLE. It was a time when former Spanish soldiers, who had not seen each other since 1939 or since the Battle of the Ebro, met once again. The two units were also joined by the Corp Franc d'Afrique, with some 3,000 soldiers, half of whom were Spanish.

The Spanish Republicans and La Nueve

After the fall of Tunisia, the Allied troops were reorganized. The Spaniards of the 13th DBLE were integrated into the American Army under the command of General Mark Wayne Clark, with the mission of striking Europe from Sicily. The Spaniards who were part of the Corp Franc d'Afrique joined the Régiment de marche du Tchad and were integrated into the Second Armoured Division of Leclerc, with the aim of attacking Europe from Normandy.

The Spaniards of the 13th DBLE entered Sicily, ascending to Rome, although after the Italian capital surrendered, they were sent to attack France from the south.

Leclerc’s Division, on the other hand, made its way from Morocco to Great Britain. Within the Second Armoured Division was the 9th Company commanded by the French captain Raymond Dronne and better known as "La Nueve" or "La Novena", made up of 150 Spanish Republicans. From Wales, they landed on the beaches of Normandy (Utah Beach), which had been taken by the Allies on 6 June 1944, two days after Rome. The Spaniards of La Nueve set foot in Normandy in early August to reinforce the advance towards Paris. The Leclerc Division, including La Nueve, was part of the U.S. Army III, led by General George Patton.

The first battles between the Spanish and the Werchmacht, the Nazi army, took place in Rennes, Le Mans, Château-Gontier and Alençon. In the battle of Eccouché some of the Spanish lost their lives, although they managed to capture 129 German prisoners.

The liberation of Paris

On August 20, 1944, the city of Paris revolted against the Germans. Charles de Gaulle demanded that the Allied Supreme Command send the Free France troops to liberate the French capital before the Werchmacht bombed it. Eventually, De Gaulle convinced Generals Gerow and Eisenhower.

La Nueve during the victory parade, August 26, 1944.

The French 2nd Armoured Division (the Leclerc Division) and the US 4th Infantry Division headed for Paris, sending La Nueve to open the way.

The Division entered the capital with the support of other military and civilian units in other parts of the country, Spaniards were also among these groups. The Spanish lieutenant colonels of the Maquis fought the Nazis in the south of France, closing the arrival of reinforcements in the battle of La Madeleine (Gard). For their part, the Spaniards of the 13th DBLE took the region of Provence and set out for Lyon.

In the afternoon of August 24, 1944, 144 republican soldiers dressed in American uniforms and armament and aboard half-tracks and Sherman army tanks, broke the Wechmacht's defensive line and entered Paris through the Italian Gate. The half-tracks, which were given Spanish names such as Los Cosacos, Madrid, Los Pingüinos, Teruel, El Ebro, Guernica, Resistencia, Santander, Guadalajara, Don Quijote, among others, were the first allied unit to enter Paris. At 21:22 hours, La Nueve burst into the centre of Paris until it reached the Town Hall, where the Spanish half-track Ebro fired the first shots at the Germans. The liberation of Paris had begun.

At dawn, the bulk of General Leclerc's 2nd Armoured Division entered through the Orleans Gate, and the 4th North American Division entered through the Italian Gate. The newspaper of the Parisian resistance announced “Libération” and published a photo of the first allied soldier who entered Paris, Lieutenant Amado Granell.

The front-page of ‘Libération’ with the Spaniard Amado Granell.

During the hours of combat that preceded the final capitulation of the Nazi troops, the Spanish stormed the Chamber of Deputies, the Hôtel Majestic and took the Place de la Concorde. At 15:30 on August 25, German troops surrendered, and it was the Spanish Republicans who received General Dietrich von Choltilz as a prisoner, while other French and American troops continued to enter Paris.

The next day, the victory parade was held across the Champs Elysées, from the Arc de Triomphe to the Notre Dame Cathedral. Amado Granell was in charge of opening the parade. While the honor of escorting Charles de Gaulle and the French leaders was given to the soldiers of La Nueve, who marched in the parade wearing arm bands with the Second Spanish Republic flag.

After the liberation of Paris

After the liberation of Paris, La Nueve left the city on September 8. They participated in several campaigns in northern France and Germany. At the liberation of Strasbourg, the Spanish Republicans of La Nueve and 13th DBLE met again. La Nueve even reached the summits of the Bavarian Alps, Berchtesgaden, where they took the Eagle's Nest (Kehlsteinhaus), the final refuge of Adolf Hitler in Berchtesgaden, on May 5, 1945, which put an end to the history of this unit.

After the end of World War II, 35 Spanish Republicans of La Nueve had fallen in combat, and 97 had been wounded. Some of them, at the end of the war, decided to remain in the French Army, although most of them rejoined civilian life in France. Although De Gaulle paid tribute to them, they did not receive the help they expected to overthrow the Franco regime in Spain. They had to remain in France, unable to return to their homeland.