Remembering Rafael Gómez Nieto, Covid’s Fallen Anti-Fascist

The final survivor of La Nueve, the company of Spanish Republican soldiers who were the first to enter Paris in 1944, died earlier this year from coronavirus. We remember Rafael Gómez Nieto.

On 24 August 1944, Rafael Gómez Nieto entered Paris through the Porte d’Italie on an armoured personnel carrier that he and his comrades had christened Guernica. The other vehicles carrying the vanguard of the Allied forces through the Nazi-occupied French capital also bore names of Spanish Civil War battles: Teruel, Guadalajara, Ebro, Brunete. This was La Nueve, the Ninth Company, overwhelmingly comprised of Spanish Republican exiles who had enlisted in the Leclerc division of the Free French Forces.

When la Nueve arrived at the Hôtel de Ville before 10 p.m., they were met by machine gun fire from nearby buildings, which their E3 halftrack quickly silenced. As news spread of their arrival and the bells of the city’s churches began to ring out, crowds thronged the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville — including many Spanish members of the French resistance who came to greet their compatriots. About 4,000 Spanish resistance fighters had participated in the city’s uprising against the German occupation in the preceding days. La Nueve’s French commander Captain ‎Raymond Dronne‎ remembered hearing Civil War anthems being sung in the Parisian streets as he fell asleep that night.

Gómez Nieto — the last surviving member of La Nueve — died aged 99 at the end of March after contracting the coronavirus. Yet unlike most of the other survivors, he had lived to see the company’s place in history finally recognised after decades of historical erasure. That the first Allied unit to enter Paris consisted of Spanish volunteers did not fit with the official narrative of French national liberation. Indeed General Charles De Gaulle’s speech at the Hôtel de Ville on 25 August  omitted any reference to La Nueve. In his words, Paris had been ‘liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France.’

Yet Gómez Nieto, like most of those who joined La Nueve, had the particular distinction of having fought fascism in two wars. He was a veteran of the Battle of the Ebro (the largest and most bloody of the Spanish Civil War) and with La Nueve, went on to participate in the battle for Strasbourg and the capture of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. His son Jean-Paul told Publico last year: ‘There were many young Spaniards like my father who had escaped to Algeria [in 1939]. Republicans, anarchists and communists who, after the [civil] war in Spain, were conscious of the brutality of fascism. They were not obliged to fight but the Spanish fought voluntarily — they fought for freedom.’

From the Refugee Camps to VE Day

In a September 1944 editorial for Combat entitled ‘Our Brothers From Spain’, Albert Camus wrote of ‘the quiet shame’ he felt in relation to France’s treatment of its neighbours to the south: ‘First because we left Spain to perish on her own [through a policy of non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War]. And then, when our brothers, defeated by the very same weapons that were to crush us, came to us, we posted gendarmes to keep them at arms’ length.’

This was in fact Gómez Nieto’s first experience of his future adopted homeland. With the fall of Barcelona to Franco’s forces imminent in January 1939, he crossed the Spanish-French border along with half a million other refugees and was taken to Saint-Cyprien concentration camp on the coast south of Perpignan. In an interview for Evelyn Mesquida’s book La Nueve 24 August, 1944, he described the initial conditions in the camp as follows:

We were shoeless, drinking dirty, soapy water drawn from the same place where we washed. When we drank, soap bubbles came out of our mouths. We were given very small rations, one loaf between ten people and from time to time potatoes with a little meat and boiled eggs.

Then we became lousy. That was real misery. Every day we would go down to the shore to clean up and kill lice. And still they survived. At night we’d dig holes in the sand in which to sleep and cover ourselves with a blanket.

Securing his release with forged documents a few months later, Gómez Nieto made his way to Algeria where he signed up to the French African Corp and was integrated into the so-called Spanish Battalion, of which La Nueve was the most fully Spanish unit.

Landing on Omaha Beach six weeks after D-Day, La Nueve’s ranks counted 146 Spaniards — out of 164 soldiers — but only 16 would survive the war. According to Gómez Nieto: ‘We were always the cannon fodder, a shock battalion. We could always be found in the line of fire, determined not to give ground and to give our best.’

Even as Paris celebrated on the morning of 25 August, La Nueve was involved in the final assault on the German Headquarters stationed in the Hotel Meurice on Rue de Rivoli. It ended with capture of the Nazi Commander of Paris by two Spanish resistance fighters. Their subsequent campaign — from Andelot to Vacqueville, where La Nueve ‘broke the German resistance street by street and house by house under a hail of shells’ — was a gruelling one.

‘We wanted to return’

Unlike many of his comrades in La Nueve, Gómez Nieto was never a member of a political organisation. What united his unit was a belief that the liberation of France was a prequel to the restoration of the Spanish Republic. ‘They enlisted with the idea that, when they had eradicated Nazism in Europe, they would return to Spain to finish off Franco’, Jean-Paul told Publico.

For Camus it was a moral imperative that the Allies take up this task: ‘why not state here, as loudly as we can, that we must not make the same mistakes again and must recognise our brothers and liberate them as well … by delivering to our Spanish comrades the Republic for which they have fought so hard.’

Yet this did not figure in De Gaulle’s post-liberation plans. With the objective of ‘restoring the [French] State’ as a single administration, all while cementing his own authority within it, De Gaulle had to wrest control of various southern departments from the local liberation committees. As historian Louis Stein notes: ‘no Allied troops appeared south of a line drawn from Nantes to Orleans to Dijon, and west of a line from Dijon to Avignon. Yet many of the territories within these limits were liberated before Paris and almost entirely by Resistance forces.’

Many of the liberation committees in these departments were dominated by communist forces — amongst which Spanish Republicans had a strong presence. Under the command of communist intellectual Jean-Pierre Vernant, approximately 6,000 Spanish resistance fighters participated in the liberation of Toulouse while southern regions such as Périgord and cities like Foix were completely liberated by Spanish guerrillas. In total the liberation of forty-nine cities in France was accomplished completely or in part by Spanish Maquis .

In October 1944 Spanish communists launched incursions into northern Spain, with the hope of sparking a popular uprising in their homeland, but were beaten back by 50,000 Francoist troops. After this failure, De Gaulle’s government sought to disarm Spanish fighters along the border — before going on to sign a bilateral commercial agreement with Franco’s regime in September 1945. By then Spain’s fate had already been settled. At the Potsdam conference in July 1945, Churchill and Truman ruled out direct intervention to remove the dictatorship. As Cold War division set in, Franco would become a key NATO ally.

At the war’s end, the only offer on the table for La Nueve’s survivors was the opportunity to go fight France’s colonial wars in Southeast Asia. Gómez Nieto chose to return to Algeria — with the tea set and camera he had ‘liberated’ from the Eagle’s Nest — and where he worked as cobbler. He later moved with his wife, Florence, to Strasbourg where he died last Tuesday in a nursing home.

We Must Remember

Gómez Nieto is not the only anti-fascist hero to die during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Italian partisan Francesco Nezosi — who fought Mussolini in the Lombardy Alps — also died in March, as did the tireless activist for historical justice in Spain, Chato Galante.

As a member of the Liga Comunista Revolucionaria, Galante was arrested in 1971 by Francoist security forces and subject to fourteen days of torture before spending five years as a political prisoner. ‘It was not only that they beat you up’ he later explained, ‘it was about physically destroying people, and there are many who are still not able to tell their story.’

A well-known figure on the Spanish left, Galante founded La Comuna, a political space for the recuperation of historical memory. In 2018 he gained wider international prominence through the documentary The Silence of Others — which followed Galante and other victims of Franco’s brutal regime in their struggle for historical justice.

On the news of his death, Spain’s equality minister and Unidas Podemos MP Irene Montero tweeted: ‘We will not forget that we are here because of people like you … That is what we will tell our children.’ As the last survivors from the struggle against fascism leave us, this is a sentiment that many of us on the left can identify with.