For many of us who are not Spanish by birth, the Spanish Civil War seems something quite distant and even slightly obscure. Today more is being said and written about the Civil War and it does not appear quite the taboo subject of even the relatively recent past. Certainly, it was a massive event in the country’s history with perhaps half a million people dying during or soon after it.
The Province of Murcia was in the Republican (“red”) zone throughout the war and, although it avoided the pitched battles that took place elsewhere in the country, its suffering was no less. Nowhere was the horror and impact upon ordinary people of the Spanish Civil War more obvious than in the city of Cartagena, which had a central role in the conflict from the Republican side, if for no other reason than its extremely important naval base and the Operations Centre for the Republican Fleet.
Cartagena was also a critical supply point for the Republicans for war materials and troop reinforcements which made possible the defence of Madrid. It was also the second most important industrial city in the Republican zone. All this made it a principal target for air attack by Italian and German planes supporting the Nationalists under General Franco. While Cartagena’s coastal batteries and old fortresses around the Bay gave it protection from attacks by sea, they offered little in relation to air raids. The port was also the main contact point for Soviet assistance to the Republicans and virtually all the aid which came from Odessa landed at Cartagena. The reciprocal flow constituted most of Spain’s considerable gold reserves which were loaded in October 1936 on to four steamers in Cartagena and taken to Russia with a destroyer escort to finance the war effort.
As is so often the case, it was the ordinary citizens of Cartagena who suffered most. They had to endure constant air raids and difficulties of supply were made even worse by an influx of refugees from places such as Malaga or Toledo (part of an arms factory together with its workers, was even evacuated from the latter). The first air raid took place in mid-October 1936, following which 49 prisoners were taken from the San Antón jail and shot in retaliation. Another air raid on Cartagena saw planes of the German Condor Legion drop incendiary bombs on the city between 5.30 pm and 9 pm on 25 November 1936. It became known as the “Bombardeo de las Cuatro Horas” (the Four Hour Bombing).
Even the end of the war in Cartagena was tragic in its own way. Hunger caused numerous deaths and this was made worse by the unusual coldness of the winter in early 1939. In early March of that year, following Nationalist bombing, officers from the Cartagena Artillery rose to support General Franco, taking control of naval radio communications and seeking assistance. The rising was, however, put down by the Republican 206 Brigade within a couple of days. One Nationalist ship nearby, the Castillo de Olite, apparently devoid of radio communication and whose officers thought the landing in support of the (failed) uprising was continuing entered the port only to be sunk with the loss of between 1200 and 1500 lives. However, on 31st March, Cartagena fell to the Nationalists a single day before the end of the war as a whole. For Cartagena and its inhabitants, the end of the war brought precious little immediate alleviation to their living conditions. Houses and infrastructure had been damaged and destroyed, industry was paralysed and living levels were basic at very best. Reprisals were inevitable and hundreds were brought before judges, with many executions following.
What is remarkable in Cartagena is that there is a first-hand source of information which gets you much closer to the events of that time and the impact upon the local population in the remarkable Civil War Museum. This is not located in any ordinary building, but in tunnels which were actually constructed in the rock of one hillside to act as an air raid shelter for the local population. The Museum (Museo Refugio de la Guerra Civil) is located in Calle Gisbert on the flanks of the hill of La Concepción. It is very easy to find as it is located directly by the prominent glass tower and panoramic lift. It gives an intimate view of the life of ordinary people at that time through pictorial panels, photographs and video accounts, including interviews, in a unique setting. There is a small entry fee for the museum which, when we last visited in mid-2013 opened from 10am to 5.30pm, Tuesdays to Sundays, but extending to 7pm from mid-September to the start of November and mid-March to the end of June, and to 8pm in July, August and the first half of September.
You enter the museum through a tunnel in the rock with, on the left, a display explaining how the project was conceived and put into operation. As you walk through the tunnels, you will see many lit panels which explain how life was for the ordinary inhabitant of Cartagena during the Civil War. You will be informed of the guidelines which had to be followed including the rules of behaviour, together with the space allowed per person and details of available equipment. There are also exhibits of typical household goods and a school of the time. Perhaps most interesting of all, you can watch a video of people giving their reminiscences of life during the Civil War years. One individual recounts how, as a child, he saw donkeys stop outside his house to drink from a trough en route to the slaughter house. Only later did he realize that he had probably eaten some of them!
Don’t worry if your Spanish is not good, as there are English subtitles.
As you pass on, the displays and posters concentrate more on the bombing of the city and the building of the air raid shelters to try and protect its civilians. How many air raids there were appears to be something of a guess, with estimates ranging from 40 to 117. Inevitably, quite a lot of attention is given to the Four Hour Bombing. One room contains an old bomb in a display case and has a collection of stills and film clips of life in Cartagena around the time of the Civil War, followed by the effects of the war in terms of bombing and the destruction caused. Following this, there is a display about the evacuation of children, including some to England. Another video then shows you scenes of Cartagena in the 1930s including the buildings, the squares and the people.
From your visit to the museum, you will appreciate some of the horrors of the Civil War and something of its effect on both the city and people of Cartagena. The tunnels of Calle Gisbert are themselves something to marvel at and formed the largest of Cartagena’s air raid shelters with a capacity to take 5,500 people.
Article by Clive and Rosie Palmer who have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia. These can be seen at and obtained from, www.lulu.com, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Clive and Rosie’s book, “Exploring Murcia, Days Out” is available to buy from the CHM/Costa Cálida Chronicle office on Camposol B, Best Wishes (who also stock other of their books including the follow-up “Exploring Murcia, More Days Out”), or phone Patti on 968 433 978.