An article of Andreu Caralt Giménez and Maite Hernández Sahagún. Terra Enllà, studies and experiences
Tortosa was massively bombed during the Spanish Civil War, between 1937 and 1938 on more than eighty occasions. The existence of three bridges over the river Ebro, especially the so-called state and train bridges, which connected infrastructure between Barcelona and Valencia, were the main military objective of Francoist side aviation. In the eyes of the rebels, the capital of the Ebre region had other targets: the railway station, war industries, such as the Sales workshops, official buildings, and even a gas station. The fascist Italian Aviazione Legionaria, based in Mallorca, was responsible for the vast majority of attacks on the capital of the Ebre Region, followed by the He-59 bombers of the German Condor Legion.
The first airstrike occurred on the evening of February 23, 1937, a shock without fatalities. However, a month later, on March 22, a second air raid caused the first massacre: eleven fatalities among women and children. The aggression would accelerate the construction of anti-aircraft shelters along the town centre to protect the population – one of them where the mural has been placed – but the persistent fear of further bombing caused part of the neighborhood to seek protection outside the city, especially at night, the time of the day when initial airstrikes were most common.
However, the city’s pulse was kept alive during the first year of the air offensive. The day-to-day life of the citizens took place in an increasingly warlike environment, from political rallies and pro-fighters events to the growing attention of hundreds of war refugees arriving at the train station; from the transference to the area of the Republican military units to the splendid offer of cinemas and leisure activities to offer moments of escape to the population; from growing food shortages to the launch of unprecedented social transformations driven by anti-fascist organizations.
The intensity of the air threat would rise substantially in the spring of 1938. On March 9, the Francoist side began a major military operation, the offensive of Aragon, intending to conquer the entire right bank of the river Ebre until the Mediterranean Sea. Tortosa, a defensive core of the Republican army, received systematic airstrikes with the mission of destroying its bridges and cutting off the Republican retirement. The death toll rose exponentially in those days.
On April 15, the fascist infantry arrived in Vinaròs and the legionary aviation managed to disable the state bridge. It was Good Friday, Black Friday, Blood Friday. More than a dozen attacks from the morning to the afternoon dropped more than 50,000 kilos of bombs over Tortosa. Foreign war correspondents such as Ernest Hemingway and Vincent Sheean, transferred to this war front, wrote reports for the international print media. Hemingway’s colleague and friend Herbert Matthews recounts in the New York Times the destruction of the city:
‘The evidence of the bombings are frightening to see. For its freshness, they gave a new and harmful life to this dead city: bomb craters, mountains of ruins that had been houses, shattered trees with their spring-fresh leaves, new car wreckage, dust and smoke (.. .) After one last creepy journey through hell in this city, the scene cleared up. At one point, a gas truck had been destroyed and was burning fiercely right in the middle of the street. We had to pass by, holding our breath for a second or two”.
Three days later, on Monday, April 18, Republican bombers overturned bridges over the city to prevent enemy advance from the right bank of the river, where they were, to the left bank of the Ebre river, the area where it stands the major part of the city of Tortosa. The arrival of the war front to the city led to the total and final evacuation of civilians.
From then on, and for nine months, thousands of people from Tortosa evacuated on both sides of the river had to survive in the mountains and surrounding fields in terrible conditions of food and health, surrounded by military units deployed by each of the armies. The republican zone was occupied, in the first instance, by international volunteers: the Italian brigade Garibaldi and the Franco-Belgian Marseilles. On the other hand, Italian-Spanish fascist units did the same. Each army lashed out at the enemy with monotonous artillery bombardment, which in turn undermined the city’s urban structure.
During the second half of 1938, while the people from Tortosa were barely living, far away from their city. The victory of the Francoist side was reaffirmed. The bloody battle of the Ebro, with its epicentre further north, caused tens of thousands of deaths. It was the prologue to the definitive conquest of Catalonia by the revolted military. The great operation began on December 23, 1938 in the Segre. A few weeks later, on January 13, 1939, soldiers crossed boats in Tortosa and seized the bulk of the town. The city was exhausted. The damage was massive, more than 3,400 homes were affected, of which more than 1,200 had been destroyed. The reconstruction of the city would take about twenty years.
Terra Enllà is a company from the Ebre Region with historical memory services and a travel agency specialised in the Battle of the Ebre, the Civil War and the Second World War. In the case of Tortosa, it was the first company to offer guides from the Civil War in 2014. Four years later, it produced the documentary “In the dark: The memory of the bombed Tortosa’ with Bluverd communication, awarded by the Catalan Association of Journalists and the FIC-CAT International Catalan Film Festival Costa Daurada. Terra Enllà offers three regular Civil War routes in the city, one of them dedicated exclusively to the number 4 anti-aircraft shelter.
In 2021, Tortosa has been the capital of the Catalan culture, and coinciding with the eighty-third anniversary of the bombing of the city, the city council invited Murs de Bitàcola to carry out an intervention on the entrance wall of the anti-aircraft shelter number 4. For the team of Murs de Bitàcola, this order had a special meaning, as one of our focuses is the war in Spain and the Ebre Region have been the scene of one of the episodes capital of this conflict. That’s why we thought it was a very interesting proposal, as well as the typology of the wall. What was once a secondary street, with a simple street and no architectural contribution to the city, but which hides the anti-aircraft shelter that pierces the bowels of the city and has inside, therefore, a memorial heritage that it is almost hidden. Therefore, the proposal is in line with our goal of having the same walls of towns, neighbourhoods and cities to tell their story.
We made a very good tandem collaborating with the Terra Enllà team and with the city council itself in order to choose the images that best represented everything we wanted to tell. The execution, the last mural of the year 2021, has been with quite difficult conditions, as the time of year has meant that we have had few hours of light and very low temperatures; at the same time that the curvature of the wall that we had to intervene and the typology of the support in which we had to paint have meant that we have spent eight days working on it.
During the making of the mural we were able to witness all the guided tours of the anti-aircraft shelter number 4, where we were doing the intervention. On the other hand, it has been very intense and exciting to see how the population of Tortosa was approaching as the process of the mural progressed and the images that make up the work were completed. While we were carrying out the intervention, we received a lot of comments of interest, support and also, from the older population, of emotion, seeing how such hard episodes with such a strong emotional bond came to light. Seeing how grandparents who went to look for their grandchildren at school stopped to explain to the children what represented those images and the memories associated with them strengthened us in our desire to be a vehicle that facilitates and dynamizes the transmission of the intangible heritage that is memory, so important to preserve and keep alive the richness and plurality of memories of popular memory. People from Tortosa told us anecdotes from that time, like a neighbour who told us about how his parents had to flee Tortosa and settled in Camarles, and that it was when they saw that the chickens that were starting to hide around they knew there was a new bombing. A neighbour also passed on the words of her mother, who was ninety years old and one of the witnesses of Terra Enllà’s documentary work, A les fosques, who was moved and grateful for this type of intervention.
We are very pleased to have contributed our grain of sand to this whole process and to have helped to preserve the historical memory of the city and we believe that this intervention acts, on the one hand, as a guarantee of the preservation of historical memory and, on the other hand, it is an act of denunciation of the atrocity caused by the Francoist bombing over the city of Tortosa. Often, from the international arena, the bombing of Guernica is the great exponent of bombings on civilians and the collaboration of Mussolini; but Tortosa, like other cities in our territory, experienced a similar horror. Such bloody, cruel and deliberately destructive acts make us cry out, once again: never again, nowhere else, against anyone.