‘The Moors are coming’
By January 1937, the Spanish Civil War already six months old, and the southern region of Andalucía had already been through its fair share of horrors. With much of the area sided with the Republicans, the Nationalists, led by fascist Franco (and his German and Italian allies) were hot on ripping through Andalucía and ruling the area, and were having great success. In January, General Queipo de Lllano, who had already enjoyed mass executions through Andalucía, was named head of the Army of the South, a division of 15,000 troops, made up of Spanish soldiers and Moorish fighters from Morocco, based in Seville. They were aided by Italian men brought in from Cadiz, 10,000 ‘Blackshirts’, and were ordered to take Málaga on the southern coast, picking up Granada, Marbella and Ronda on the way, along with the surrounding rural areas.
The city of Málaga, population 250,000, plus another 90,000 who had fled there from the countryside, saw no immediate reason to worry, and their 12,000 Republican militia (only 8,000 armed) did not take up any training, dug in no trenches, set up no road blocks and manned no hilltop lookouts. They simply did not have the manpower or supplies to defend themselves. The Nationalists were battle-hardened men who had no problem killing brutally, particularly the Moorish soldiers, who had committed horrid crimes elsewhere in Spain.
The attack began on February 3, 1937 when Ronda was defeated by Nationalist troops, leading them right to Málaga, coming from the west. The Italian troops, who had entered the region from the northern hills, arrived on February 6. At that point, all the people of the city could either fight or flee. Through the day on February 7, the Republican fighters were torn apart by the onslaught of the Nationalists, and executions began. It mattered little whether you were a militiaman or not, you were executed. Women were raped brutally, and then shot if the rape didn’t kill them. Children were killed in the crossfire or just killed as collateral damage. February 8 marked the official fall of Málaga, completely swamped with Nationalist soldiers and bombed from the air by German and Italian planes. Boats offshore also bombarded the city. Around 4,000 people were killed in the initial executions alone, though exact numbers are not possible.
The people of Málaga had only one way to go; east along the coast towards the haven of Almería, an area relatively safe at this point in the war. But Almería was 220km (135 miles) along the N-340. It is unknown precisely how many people tried to flee, either on foot, donkey or by truck (until petrol ran out anyway), though an estimate by Contemporary History professors Encarnación Barranquero and Lucia Prieto is 100,000 now-refugees.
By dawn on February 8, the city was Nationalist territory, and many of the people who fled were around 30 kilometres east in Torre del Mar, walking the sparse road. Trucks that ambled past were loaded with children, parents eager to get them to safety any way possible, begging the trucks to take children from their arms as they walked. They had to walk with everything they owned, clothes, bedding, sewing machines, tools, water, anything they had, strapped and carried by their bodies or donkeys. But the walk was not their only problem. General Queipo de Llano was not content with taking the city and executing those who didn’t flee. The refugees would be chased.
As people trekked the winding, hilly, unsealed road, the troops were making their way behind them, swift and trained for marching. Then bombing from the air along the road began. People had nowhere to hide – caves, ditches, rocks, anything had to be used for defense as the Nationalists looked to wipe out the lot. The 16-kilometre stretch between Nerja (55 kilometres east of Málaga) and La Herradura suffered a terrible fate as the first wave of civilians were attacked, bodies littering the road as they were defenseless from the air. Parents were forced to dig with their hands and bury their children. People pressed themselves against cliff-faces in the hope of safety and died on the spot. Gutters filled with bodies as they fell from the roadside. Whole extended families were found lying together, all dead, and some with children left alive, picked up by other people strong enough to carry an extra person. The bridge over the Guadalfeo River, 90 kilometres from Málaga, was bombed, sending innocent refugees into the water and drowned at nightfall.
By the time the refugees arrived in Motril, 95 kilometres from Málaga, the International Brigades were there to help defend them against the Nationalists, but many refugees were now injured, starving and exhausted, and still had a long way to go, with family members left dead on the roadside. None would return until the end of the war, some remained in exile for life. Reports state that skeletons of the people killed on that dusty stretch were still to be found on the roadside until the mid-1960’s. No one wanted to go home along the N-340, and the whole incident was silenced.
One man became well-known in the mess, a Canadian named Norman Bethune. A doctor and ambulance driver, he was in Spain to fight fascism as an international volunteer. His ambulance raced back and forth along this road, trying to save all he could. To read about Bethune, try ‘The Ambulance Man and the Spanish Civil War’ by Paul Read. It’s a shame the locals who suffered this event were not so well-known, their stories limited to tales told between generations until recently.
Professors at the University of Málaga estimate over 5,000 people died on the road, based on oral histories collected, plus burial records in Salamanca, and Málaga archives. Bodies were not properly buried or treated, so the exact figure can never be established. Those killed and buried along the roadside are still left there today. Ten years ago, the Diputación de Málaga opened its archives for professors to complete historical memory works on the massacre in the area, to accompany the stories of 400 people who came forward with their personal accounts of the event.
The Malaga-Almeria massacre is commemorated at Torre del Mar, considered a halfway point along the road where the massacre took place, on February 7, the date people began to flee their homes in Málaga. This attack was almost a practice, a prelude to many atrocities that would go on to occur in WWII. The damage done to the people of Málaga, the towns that were in the firing line towards Almeria, and the whole rural region itself is unimaginable, and how it shaped and changed the lives and lifestyle of following generation in the area has been largely ignored until recent times.
If you are interested and can read Spanish, the book by professors Encarnación Barranquero and Lucia Prieto from the University of Malaga is Poblacion y Guerra Civil en Málaga: Caido Exodo y Refugio, an excellent book, well researched, with powerful personal recollections.
A first person account written is 1937 is Norman Bethune’s The crime on the road Malaga-Almeria : narrative with graphic documents revealing fascist cruelty (if you can get a copy – I can’t!)
This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos are auto-linked to source for credit.