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Continuing the fight: Three anarchists from Spain in the British army, 1939-1945

From Norway to Trentham Park

Born in 1909 in Alcorisa, Aragón, Manuel Espallargas Ferrer found out shortly before escaping to France that his wife and father had been shot in Spain by the Franco Regime. A committed member of the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (CNT), he had fought in several Spanish Civil War battles, including the bloody battle of Belchite, before cSéan F. Scullionrossing into France in 1939.

Manuel was one of some 1,200 Spaniards who volunteered to serve in the British army during the Second World War. Spaniards served in theatres from Norway to Central Africa and from the Atlantic to the Pacific, continuing the fight that, for many, had started with the Spanish Civil War in 1936. They served in units ranging from special forces and airborne troops to the Pioneer Corps and the Special Operations Executive (SOE).(i)

By the end of the Second World War, many settled in Britain and integrated into British life, setting up a Spanish Ex-Servicemen’s Association and continuing the fight in exile against Franco. This article tells the story of three of them, ardent anarchists who joined the British Army staying in Britain until the restoration of democracy in Spain after 1975.

Enlisting in the French Foreign Legion in 1939, Manuel fought in Norway against the German invasion of 1940.(ii) It is said that the performance of the Spanish legionnaires here (many of them anarchists) caused French officers to change their opinion of them. These were men who had fought at Madrid and Aragón in the Spanish Civil War and were used to the intensity of the conflict ahead. A witness to this was Captain Pierre-Olivier Lapie:

“[T]he Spaniards saw on those tortuous tracks something similar to their own lands. They jumped from one side to the other like tigers and never seemed to tire out. If there were officers who were apprehensive about having these Republican Spaniards in the Legion, believing they were communists, they were now proud and happy with their fighting spirit. An example was the case of a young Spaniard who attacked and captured a German machine gun position in Elvegaard.”(iii)

This young man was the small and determined Manuel Espallargas Ferrer, who led a small team up the mountain fighting for some ten hours to take the German position. Over the course of those days, many Spaniards lost their lives in Norway.

Worrying news from France prompted the French to withdraw from Norway and land at Brest. Surprised by their new French officers’ lack of fight, the Spaniards held a soldiers’ commission, deciding they were willing to fight till the death. But by the 20th of June, the Spaniards were in England, where a rebellion against French command led many to join the British Army.

Foreign Legion troops were billeted at Trentham Park near Stoke-on-Trent and were visited by General Charles De Gaulle.(iv) During the visit, some 300 Spaniards carried out a silent sit-down protest for which they were imprisoned in Stafford Prison. Even before this, twenty-nine Spaniards were jailed for failing to muster.(v) Francisco Balague, who later joined the British, would later say:

“General De Gaulle came to visit us. When the Spaniards found out […] we passed around instructions to show our disdain for the French: we would throw down our weapons and sit down when the order was given to present arms. That is what we did. De Gaulle and the French and British officers who accompanied him stopped in their tracks, surprised by our attitude. The Military Police took us by lorry to Stafford Prison […] a British officer arrived there and spoke perfect Spanish and we told him we were willing to join the British Army but not continue in the French Army.”(vi)

From Stafford Prison, the Spanish legionnaires were directed to Avonmouth but opposed their embarkation at the railway station. The War History of The Royal Pioneer Corps 1939-1945 takes up the story:

“Arrangements had been made for their return to Spain, but since Spain was for obvious reasons the last country they wanted to go to the men had refused to embark at Avonmouth. Their French military officers thereupon contacted the French Military Mission in London for instructions and received orders that one in every three should be shot pour encourager les autres. At this stage the British authorities intervened, relieved the French officers of their command…”(vii)

The men formed the No.1 Spanish Company at Westward Ho! and were soon put to good use. With the fall of France, Britain was gearing up to sabotage the German war effort. It was feared that Germany might attack Gibraltar, and the Spaniards were one of the only sources of Iberian recruits.(viii) The company was hence visited in Plymouth on the 2nd of December 1940 by a Major Hugh Quennell, who was head of H Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which covered the Iberian Peninsula. The first batch started their training immediately at various SOE training establishments. Reports on their progress were written by Kim Philby, later revealed as a spy for the USSR. Much of the planning for future potential operations involved Ian Fleming, who was to create the character of James Bond 007.

The SOE training lasted most of 1941 and 1942, and by 1943, some SCONCES were earmarked as being “[R]etained for future employment”. Even though the SCONCES (the codename given by SOE), would never see action in the Iberian Peninsula, a few were used in France in 1944. Amongst them were now Sergeant Manuel Espallargas Ferrer(ix) and Private Esteban Molina, father of the actor Alfred Molina, who later talked about being deployed as a radio operator behind enemy lines.(x)

North Africa

Agustín Roa Ventura, a tall energetic young man active in the Catalan Anarchist movement, would become one of over 500 Spaniards who joined the Pioneer Corps in North Africa in 1943. He was 27 years old.

Old photo of young man in military uniform with slicked back hair and thin moustache

Augustín Roa Ventura whist serving in 361 (Alien) Pioneer Company. Courtesy of Leonor Díaz, niece of Agustín Roa Ventura.

At the end of the Spanish Civil War, around 15,000 Republican refugees escaped to Northern Africa.(xi) This increased as Vichy France moved “undesirable” Spaniards to North Africa after the autumn of 1940. Several of these were used as slave labour on projects such as the Trans-Saharan Railway. One of the worst places was the Concentration Camp at Djelfa, where 386 Spaniards were confined by the middle of 1942.(xii) Late that year, the British and American secret services ran a joint project, ‘Massingham’, where both SOE and OSS recruited Spanish volunteers across Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco to carry out operations on behalf of the allies.(xiii)(xiv) In his memoirs, Agustín talks of many being whisked away in the night to later become instructors or even fighters behind German and Italian lines in Tunisia. Many of them were anarchists who worked with explosives and had been guerrillas in the Spanish Civil War.(xv)

Born in Almeria in 1915 and an activist from an early age, Agustín moved with his family to Catalunya in the 1920s. In May 1937, he became Secretary of the Juventudes Libertarias (JJLL) in Barcelona, a youth anarchist group set up during the Second Republic. He ran a series of groups to improve relationships between the CNT, the FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica) and the JJLL. When Franco’s troops entered the city, he was forced into France and held in Saint Cyprien and Barcarès. Released to work, he remained active and was arrested in early 1942 and interned at Vernet d’Arriège before being sent to the dreaded Djelfa. At the camp were a multitude of Spanish revolutionaries and anarchists sent there by the French authorities. Here Agustín met Antonio Vargas Rivas; they would become lifelong friends.

Antonio was born in Adra, Almería, in 1917 and soon became a rebel and anarchist. He joined the CNT in the 1930s and was soon thrown into the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War. In 1939 he escaped on a fishing boat to Orán, leaving his family behind.

The Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942 meant that those interned were freed. Agustín and Antonio soon enlisted in the British Army along with many other Spaniards into the newly formed 361 (Alien) Company of the Pioneer Corps at Boufarik, Algeria, in April 1943. By October 1944, 361, 362, 363 companies were sent to Britain. Fifty or so members of 361 augmented the No.1 Spanish Company in the Ardennes soon after.(xvi) One of these was Antonio. Due to their support roles in Britain, many Spaniards were not de-mobilised until late 1946 or early 1947.

The War’s End, Continuing the Fight

The end of the Second World War brought much uncertainty to the Spaniards, who had ended up in Britain. While the 400 or so members of the No. 1 Spanish Company, SAS and 50 Middle East Commando were immediately allowed to stay in the United Kingdom, others were not so lucky. As representatives of the three Companies from North Africa, Agustín Roa Ventura and Antonio Vargas Rivas and a few others visited London shortly after the war to petition Labour MPs regarding their plight.(xvii) By mid-1946, Spaniards recruited in North Africa, stationed in Britain, could stay in Britain.(xviii) But what was evident was that many of these veterans felt that Britain had let them down by not going after Franco next. Those who stayed settled across the country, and many applied for naturalisation.

Manuel Espallargas Ferrer after the war. Courtesy of Victor Asensio, grandson of Manuel Espallargas Ferrer

Old photo of middle aged man in suit and tie
Photo of older balt man in white jacket

Antonio Vargas Rivas after the war. Courtesy of Leonor Díaz, niece of Agustín Roa Ventura.

In London, a Spanish Ex-Servicemen’s Association was set up in 1960, which was involved in the organisation of protests and campaigns building awareness of the Franco regime in Britain.(xix) The two founders were Agustín and Antonio, who also remained active with the CNT in exile.

Both settled in London, as did Manuel Espallargas Ferrer. Agustín became involved in printing as a typographer with The Times and later The Sun. Antonio got a job in the famous Martínez Restaurant and remained there for the rest of his working life. For many years, Agustín remained the Secretary of the Commission for Relations for the CNT in Great Britain and worked heavily with the social democratic Union General de Trabajadores (UGT). He also became a trade unionist on various committees for the Trades Union of the Graphic Industry. Antonio also became a member of the CNT in exile and attended several meetings in Britain and France. The Spanish Ex-Servicemen’s Association soon launched a Bulletin, which was frequently published. The two also published and edited Spain out of Spain, Anarchist Bulletin for Updates & Information (España fuera de España, Boletín anarquista de orientación e información) aimed at immigrant Spanish workers. On the 10th of July 1960, the Spanish Ex-Servicemen’s Association was at the forefront of protests during the visit of the Francoist Minister Fernando María Castiella, which ended in a series of speeches in Trafalgar Square. Agustín gave one of them. Both continued to be militant against the Franco regime in exile until his death in 1975 and published various articles and accounts. One of these was the award-winning Triumfo del Dolor, written by Agustín, which won the Premio Larra in the mid-1970s. He also wrote another book entitled Agony and Death of Francoism, A Memoir (Agonía y muerte del franquismo. Una memoria).

Monochrome photo of demonstration on a British street showing men holding banners reading Free Abarca! and Solidarity with the Asturian miners. A british police officer is walking at front with one of the demonstrators looking ascanse at him
One of the many protests the Spanish Ex-Servicemen’s Association was involved with in the 1960s. Courtesy of Leonor Díaz, niece of Agustín Roa Ventura.

Spanish Anarchists who served in the British Army between 1939 and 1946 went through a great deal. Most were born when Spain was a neutral country during the First World War and undergoing its industrial revolution. As young children, they lived under the Regime of General Primo de Rivera in the 1920s. In the early 1930s, they witnessed the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic and the military coup attempt and civil war that followed in 1936. They were, in 1939, forced to take refuge in France and be interned. On the outbreak of the Second World War, many fought on the losing side with the French and took their chances by joining the British Army to continue the fight against fascism until victory in 1945. They remained fighting against the evil of the Franco Regime in exile until his death in 1975, and many would return to their native country thereafter.

Black and white photo of column of older men wearing civilian clothes and medals with a large wreath at the front of the column, reading to the memory of the spaniards who gave their lives in the fight for freedom 1939-45
Members of the Spanish Ex-Servicemen’s Association ready to set off along Whitehall in 1975. Antonio Vargas Rivas far right, and Agustín Roa Ventura, second from right. Note Luís Gabriel Portillo (father of Michael Portillo), fifth from the Right. Courtesy of Leonor Díaz, niece of Agustín Roa Ventura.
Black and white photo of 10 downing street showing five older men in civilian clothes and medals plus a police officer
Members of the Spanish Ex-Servicemen’s Association delivering a letter to 10 Downing Street in 1975. Agustín Roa Ventura, far left, and Antonio Vargas Rivas, far right. Courtesy of Leonor Díaz, niece of Agustín Roa Ventura.
A cloth banner with coloured tassels reading No 1 Spanish coy 1940 until victory
The flag of the No.1 Spanish Company. Courtesy of the Royal Logistics Corps Museum.

~ Séan F Scullion

Séan is currently writing a book entitled “Continuing the Fight: Spaniards in the British Army 1939-45” and is on twitter @sean_f_scullion

Feature image: Senior Non-Commissioned Officers of the No.1 Spanish Company in 1943. Manuel Espallargas is sitting on the far left. Courtesy of Victor Asensio, grandson of Manuel Espallargas Ferrer.


(i) To date, the author has found just over 1,000 named individuals with Regimental Numbers. It is calculated that a further 300 or so who were in the SOE and served in specialist units in North Africa will bring the number up to some 1,200 in total.

(ii) Roa Ventura, Agustín; Los años de mi vida, Personal Papers, 1942 – 1950. Pp. 93-94.

(iii) Ibid.

(iv) Atkin, Nicholas; The Forgotten French: Exiles in the British Isles, 1940-44, Manchester University Press, 2003, p. 123.

(v) Comor, André-Paul; L’épopée de la 13e Demi-brigade de Légion étrangère, Nouvelles Editions Latines, Paris, 1988. P. 83.

(vi) Arasa, Daniel; Los españoles de Churchill, Editorial Armonía Poética, Barcelona, 1991, p.29.

(vii) Major E.H. Rhodes-Wood; A War History of The Royal Pioneer Corps 1939-1945, p.76.

(viii) O’Connor, Bernard; Blowing up Iberia: British, German and Italian Sabotage in Spain and Portugal during the Second World War, Bernard O’Connor, 2019, p. 35.

(ix) No. 1 Spanish Coy War Diary. Entry for 11 Jun 1943 reads: Sgt M Espallargas – awarded Certificate for Good Service in King’s Birthday Honours.

(x) Arasa, Daniel, Los españoles de Churchill, p.312 where Molina states: “Estuve en Francia dos veces y tenía la misión de radiotelegrafista. Captábamos y emitíamos mensajes…”

(xi) For more information about the evacuation of exiled Spaniards using the Stanbook from Alicante to Orán, see: Vilar, Juan B;El exilio español de 1939 en el Norte de África”, in ¡Ay de los vencidos! El exilio y los países de acogida )Ed. Eneida, Madrid), p.74 and by the same autor La última gran emigración política española. Relación nominal de los militantes republicanos evacuados de Alicante en el buque inglés Stanbrook con destino a Orán en 28 de marzo de 1939”, en Anales de Historia Contemporánea, Univ. de Murcia, Num. 2, 1983.

(xii) TNA HS3-50: Massingham Prisons Interrogation and Concentration Camps, Report on Djelfa dated 19-22nd January 1943.

(xiii) CIA-RDP13X00001R000100330006-2: SO Operation Instructions to Lt Col WA Eddy USMC, 14 October 1942.

(xiv) Marco, J; 2020, ‘Transnational Soldiers and Guerrilla Warfare from the Spanish Civil War to the Second World War’, War in History, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 387-407.

(xv) Roa Ventura, Agustín; Los años de mi vida, Personal Papers, 1942 – 1950.

(xvi) Arasa, Daniel; Los Espaoles de Churchill, p. 49.

(xvii) Hansard, Volume 420: Debate on Pioneer Corps (Release of Aliens), 5 March 1946.

(xviii) Hansard, Volume 423: Debate on Aliens (Place of Release), 4 June 1946.

(xix) Monferrer, Catalán, Luís; Odisea en Albión: Los Republicanos Españoles Exiliados En Gran Bretaña (1936 – 1977) (Ediciones de la Torre, Madrid 2007), p. 393.

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