Jan. 26, 2022

The Fall of Barcelona to General Franco

The Fall of Barcelona to General Franco

January 26, 1939. In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, General Francisco Franco’s nationalist forces conquer the city of Barcelona.

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Cold Open

It’s late January 1939, in the city of Barcelona, where the Spanish Civil War is in full swing.

Inside a rundown apartment building in the El Raval neighborhood, a young man and his wife frantically button up their three-year-old daughter’s winter coat. It’s cold outside; they need to make sure she’s bundled up; but they also need to hurry and get out of the building. Outside, planes fly over ahead, dropping bombs on the city.

One bomb explodes far too close rattling the window panes and sending debris falling from the ceiling. The young man, a 27-year-old engineer, looks out, terrified, as the building across the street collapses in a cloud of rubble and dust.

For three years, Spain has been embroiled in a bloody Civil War. The conflict began when a ruthless general named Francisco Franco launched an insurrection to replace the left-wing Republican government with a fascist dictatorship, dividing the country into two opposing sides: the Nationalists and the Republicans.

From the outset of hostilities, the city of Barcelona has remained a Republican stronghold. But earlier this month, the Nationalist army began an intense bombardment of the city. Now, after several relentless weeks, General Franco’s men are closing in.

Young engineer and his family stagger out onto the smoke-filled street.

They weave their way through the chaos, past burning churches and mutilated bodies. Finally, they arrive at Barcelona’s central train station.

Here, civilian leaders are organizing a massive evacuation effort. Already, half a million refugees have fled north, to safety in France. Young engineer and his family are among the last to attempt to flee.

But when they arrive at the train station, the engineer turns to his wife and tells her that he will not be leaving with them. He is duty-bound to stay behind, defend Spain from the Nationalists. 

After a tearful farewell, he races across the city to a sports stadium, where thousands of young men are enlisting in the Republican war effort. Each man, regardless of military experience, will be given a rifle, and an order: one to defend Barcelona from the fascist invaders.

But their efforts, ultimately, will be in vain. Soon, General Franco’s forces will overwhelm Barcelona’s Republican defenders. The engineer and his comrades will be captured, and executed by the firing squad. And then on January 26th, 1939, General Francisco Franco will claim Barcelona for the Nationalists, in what will prove to be a major milestone in his bid for uncontested power over all of Spain.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is January 26th: The Fall of Barcelona to General Franco.

Act One: Spain in Turmoil

It’s April 1931 in Barcelona, eight years before Nationalist forces lay siege to the city.

Crowds of people have gathered all along Barcelona’s main street to celebrate the results of Spain’s recent elections. The left-wing Republican Socialist Alliance has won in a landslide. Their success not only ousts the military dictatorship which has governed Spain since 1923; but it also spells the end for Spain’s unpopular monarch, King Alfonso XIII.

For most of the 19th and early 20th century, Spain was a constitutional monarchy, with power shared between the monarch and the elected parliament. But as the 1800s wore on, many on the political left began clamoring for an end to the monarchy, which appeared old-fashioned and elitist. Instead, this faction want a socialist system of government, which favored the growing industrial working class.

King Alfonso XIII, whose reign began in 1886, became increasingly paranoid as the voices calling for his abdication grew louder. In 1923, responding to these threats, Alfonso backed a military coup, led by his close ally, an aristocratic general named Miguel Primo de Rivera.

With the King’s backing, Primo ruled Spain as a dictator, ending free elections and suppressing anti-monarchy sentiment. Thanks to the economic boom of the “Roaring Twenties”, Primo’s dictatorship remained largely popular during that decade, and it seemed for a while that this political system might last – with the monarchy left undisturbed.

But when the 1920s ended, so did its economic prosperity. Inflation and unemployment soared and the Spanish people turned against Primo. Wary of this shift in public opinion, King Alfonso withdrew his support for Primo’s dictatorship and by the end of January 1930, Primo had resigned and fled the country.

Not long after, local elections were held in Spain for the first time in over seven years. The results were disastrous for King Alfonso. The dissenting voices had been forced to hold their tongues under Primo’s rule. But with him gone, they were free to make their opinions known. They were frustrated by economic conditions, fed up with right-wing policies, and most significantly, thought the monarchy's time had gone. There was little King Alfonso could do to stave off the rising tide of socialism. And so, in April 1931, the Republican Socialist Alliance swept the elections.

Afterward, King Alfonso followed Primo into exile, and Spain became a republican country for just the second time in its history, kicking off an era known as the Second Spanish Republic.

Many in the country greet the results of the election with jubilation. They welcome Spain’s shift towards the left, with the promise of greater equality and the redistribution of wealth among the working class. 

But not everyone is celebrating. Conservatives see the rise of socialism as an attack on Spain’s traditional institutions. As well as forcing out the monarchy, this new government has pledged to reduce the influence of both the military and the Catholic church – two central pillars of right-wing political ideology.

Mobilized by this assault on their belief system, conservatives come out in force in the general election of November 1933. And after just two years in office, the Republican Socialist Alliance is voted out of power and replaced by a right-wing conservative coalition, called The Spanish Confederation for Autonomous Rights, or known locally as the CEDA for short. With the rise of CEDA, the country swings back to the other end of the political spectrum.

These sharp political swings are symptoms of the polarization of the Spanish people. Many on the left see CEDA as a group of extreme nationalists, not unlike Hitler and his Nazis. While many supporters of CEDA suspect the left-wingers of being radical and dangerous revolutionaries, like Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

On October 4th, in the northern region of Asturias, around 8,000 armed coal miners march into the town of Oviedo. The miners are striking to protest the rise of CEDA, and tonight, the strike is about to turn violent. Under the cover of darkness, the miners burn down over fifty churches and brutally murder as many as thirty-four clergymen and conservative figures.

To crush the strike, the newly-elected CEDA government calls on the services of a man who has already emerged as a hero of the right, a decorated military general named Francisco Franco.


In 1925, at the age of just twenty-three, Franco became commander of the Spanish Foreign Legion, an elite corps of infantry soldiers responsible for maintaining Spain’s imperial authority overseas. As a result of several key victories abroad, Franco was promoted and became the youngest general in Spanish military history.

A fierce royalist, Franco despised the rise of socialism, but he was too canny a tactician to antagonize the powerful voices on the left. So for years, Franco stayed in the background; biding his time; waiting for the right moment to take center stage. That moment comes in October 1934 when the CEDA government taps Franco to put an end to the miners’ strike.

Franco orders his men to unleash a thousand times the force and brutality that the miners themselves perpetrated. By the end of the disturbance, over 1500 miners are dead, with no attempt to minimize the bloodshed. But Franco’s ruthless tactics have unintended consequences.

The brutal suppression of the strike causes disparate left-wing factions to band together in order to defeat CEDA at the ballot box. They form a sweeping alliance, called the Popular Front, and in the 1936 general election, they claim a resounding victory.

Franco is deeply troubled by this turn of events. Franco fears the Popular Front could very well turn Spain communist. And that’s a possibility the general will not tolerate. Almost immediately after the election, Franco begins plotting a military coup.

But ministers in the new left-wing government are keenly aware of the threat that Franco poses. To neutralize him, they station Franco as far away from the halls of power in Spain as they possibly can. They make him a regional commander and place him on a remote archipelago off the coast of north Africa: the Canary Islands. But Franco will not fade into obscurity as the leaders of the Popular Front hope. Instead, he will pull the strings biding his time in the shadows, and waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

Act Two: The White Terror

It’s July 1936, five months after Franco arrives in the Canary Islands.

Two men, a spy, and a reporter sit down to lunch at an exclusive London restaurant. Golden chandeliers illuminate the oak-paneled dining room, where bow-tied waiters dart to and from the kitchen. At their corner table, the spy and the reporter speak quietly, their voices obscured by the gentile clinking of silverware.

The spy is a British MI6 agent named Major Hugh Pollard. His companion is Luís Bolín, the London correspondent for a right-wing Spanish newspaper. Both men are fascist sympathizers. They are finalizing top-secret plans to smuggle General Franco out of the Canary Islands on board a private plane.

Spanish authorities have been keeping close tabs on Franco ever since he left Spain. But despite the surveillance, the exiled general has managed to coordinate with allies in the Spanish Army to plot a military coup against the left-wing government.

Still, there’s a problem. Franco’s troops in the Spanish Foreign Legion are stationed in Morocco, where they serve as Spain’s colonial police force. With Franco marooned in the Canary Islands, he can’t reach his loyal legionnaires. The spy and the reporter want to help Franco link up with his troops so he can bring them back to Spain and topple the government.

But for this plan to work, Franco needs an aircraft that won’t arouse suspicion from Spanish authorities, one that the government will assume contains mere tourists…

Officially, the British government will stay out of the Spanish Civil War. But many in the British establishment fear the spread of socialism and are keen for the Nationalists to triumph. This is why Hugh Pollard and Luís Bolín are meeting in London – to help facilitate Franco’s coup.

On the morning of July 18th, a chartered plane takes off from an airfield just south of London. On board is MI6 agent Hugh Pollard, a pilot, and two young women. To the unsuspecting eye, these travelers look like they’re going on vacation. Nobody would suspect they are about to topple a foreign government. 

A few hours later, the plane lands in the Canary Islands. There, they pick up a new passenger, General Franco, and fly him off to Morocco. Shortly after touching down on African soil, Franco takes charge of his 30,000 soldiers. And then sets his sights on Spain.

To reach the Spanish mainland, Franco and his army must cross the strait of Gibraltar. Going by boat is impossible. Republican guards patrol the waters day and night. So for the invasion to succeed, Franco and his troops will have to travel by air.

But lacking sufficient resources to execute an airlift, Franco will need help. He enlists the assistance of another European dictator, a man with whom he has much in common: Adolf Hitler. Hitler is more than willing to support Franco’s cause. The Nazi leader sends twenty-six transport planes to help with airlift.

On July 22nd, with the help of German airpower, the transportation of the Nationalist Army begins. It’s the first military airlift of its kind in history and it marks the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. With the arrival of Franco’s troops in the south of Spain, other sections of the army on the mainland pledge their support to Franco.

Without delay, Franco and his men advance north, heading for the center of Spanish political power – the capital city of Madrid. Along the way, Nationalist commanders are instructed to carry out “radical cleansing”, in which all opponents in conquered villages are executed en masse – even civilians.

Franco’s acts of suppression will become known as the White Terror, a campaign of brutality that will claim over 200,000 lives. Franco will justify these killings by claiming he is saving Spain from the evils of communism. But in reality, he is exaggerating that threat to legitimize his barbaric attempt to exterminate political opponents.

Word of Franco’s atrocities will soon make international headlines. Incensed by the gruesome reports, foreign volunteers will flood into Spain, in a last-ditch attempt to save the country from the grip of fascism.   

Act Three: The Pact of Forgetting

It’s April 26th, 1937.

With the help of roughly 50,000 foreign volunteers, the Republicans have managed to successfully keep Franco’s forces at bay. Crucially, they have stopped the Nationalists from taking Madrid, which would be a hugely symbolic victory for Franco’s campaign.

For the moment's timing, Franco intends to return to Madrid once the rest of the country has fallen. For now, he has turned his attention to the north, where a peaceful village is about to fall victim to one of the most notorious attacks in military history.

By this point in the conflict, Nazi Germany has officially joined Franco’s war effort. By providing fighter planes and weaponry, Hitler has helped Franco outstrip his Republican opponents. And the Nazis are using the Spanish Civil War as a testing ground for their own military tactics.

One such tactic, known as Blitzkrieg, or “lightning war”, is first tested on the northern Spanish village of Guernica, on April 26th, 1937. While civilians crowd the town square for market day, the Nazis “carpet bomb” the area, demolishing the village and killing over 300 people. 

For Franco, the bombing helps him seize the remainder of Northern Spain. Now, with majority of the country under his control, the general turns his attention to Catalonia. If Franco can conquer this eastern region’s largest settlement, Barcelona, then the stage will be set for the final challenge of the Civil War: capturing Madrid.


In early January 1939, Franco begins the siege of Barcelona.

Every day, the city is pummeled with firebombs and artillery shells. Hundreds of thousands of refugees flee. They form long columns, snaking their way north through the countryside. But these civilian processions become targets for Nationalist bombers, who mow down men, women, and children alike.

Eventually, on January 26th, after weeks of bombardment, the Republican forces at Barcelona finally succumb to the Nationalist army. Following this victory, the stage is set for Franco to return to Madrid. In March 1939, Franco achieves his ultimate goal of capturing the Spanish capital, bringing an end to a long, bloody conflict.

The Spanish Civil War claims the lives of over half a million people, making it the bloodiest conflict western Europe has experienced since the end of World War I. But the horrors do not end in 1939. The conclusion of hostilities marks the beginning of Francisco Franco’s forty-one-year dictatorship, during which he suppresses the terrible truth of what happened in the Civil War.

This culture of silence persists even after Franco’s death in 1975 when Spain’s political leaders decide the only way to move forward is by forgetting what went before. This policy is called: El Pacto del Olvido, “the pact of forgetting”. But the people of Spain will not forget.

Thirty years later, in 2007, the Spanish government will pass a “historical memory” law, ordering the removal of pro-Franco statues and allowing the excavation of mass graves.

But this new legislation will be but one step on a long road towards reconciliation, and truly confronting the ghosts of a tragic past, one that became inevitable the day Barcelona fell to Franco and his Nationalists, on January 26th, 1939.


Next onHistory Daily.January 27th, 1945. Soviet troops liberate the Auschwitz and Birkenau Concentration Camps in Poland

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham. 

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.