Fort Victoria Grande, Melilla
Repository: Antonio Cazorla Sánchez Personal Collection, Peterborough, Canada
Creator: Antonio Cazorla Sánchez
Contributor: Antonio Cazorla Sánchez
Fond or Collection
Repository and Location
Antonio Cazorla Sánchez Personal Collection, Peterborough, Canada
Date Created: 2021-03
Extent: 1 item
Geographic Region: Melilla, Spain
The Civil War began in Melilla on the afternoon of July 17, 1936. The first executions came at dawn the next day; most of the victims were officers who remained loyal to the Republic. The heroic defence of the hydroplane base of Atalayón cost Captain Virgilio Leret, local commander of the air force, his life. Leret A star of Spanish aeronautical engineering, he had recently patented a jet engine. Many other officers were executed as well, among them General Romeral, the commander of Melilla, and his adjutant, Commander Seco.
A ferocious repression of civilians soon followed. The local population was frightened but hostile. In this city of fewer than 65,000 people, the Popular Front has won more than 72 per cent of the vote in the February 1936 elections. Many Republicans managed to flee to the French zone of the Protectorate of Morocco, but any others were trapped and suffered a terrible fate.
With the assistance Falangists and other local right wingers, the rebels often displayed an unimaginable cruelty. “Padre Jaén”, a former priest who had become a Socialist leader was put on display in a cage in a park in the city centre. Then, like many others, he was tortured and shot. The rebels executed at least 316 people. The Victoria Grande fort, shown in the photograph, was one of the many places where local people were detained, tortured, and executed. A restoration done in 2016 eliminated any remaining signs of its sad role. Other sites included the Alfonso XIII highway, where the new commander, Col. Luis Solans, gave perpetrators carte blanche; the Civil Guard J Division barracks; the walls of the cemetery, where many saw their last sunrise; and, outside the city, the Zeluán concentration camp where thousands were interned and many died of mistreatment, hunger, or suicide.
In her memoirs, the writer Carlota O’Neill, Virgilio Leret’s wife who spent four years as a prisoner in Victoria Grande, left a powerful account of these horrors. With great sensitivity, A Woman in the Spanish War details how unexpected the military coup was for ordinary citizens in Melilla, the horror that was unleashed, and how people from different social groups and ideological positions lived the events. Rather than a simple black and white account, the book recounts the contradictions, the good and the bad, of the victims, the executioners, and the rest of the population in the terrible years that started that late summer afternoon in 1936.