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Barcelona and the Churchill Connection

As a memorial to WSC is unveiled in the Catalan capital, we pose the question: “What is the connection between Churchill and Barcelona?”

By Alex Calvo

Churchill-Sclupture-BarcelonaChurchill monolith in BarcelonaBARCELONA, 15 December 2012—This past month, a sculpture dedicated to the memory of Sir Winston Churchill was unveiled in Barcelona.

The monument will contribute to the preservation and promotion of the great statesman’s memory and in particular prompt renewed interest and research on his connections with the capital of Catalonia.

Why was it that Churchill cited Barcelona in his famous 18 June 1940 “Finest Hour” speech?

When the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War broke out, the British Government was understandably reluctant to intervene, but it followed very carefully some of its developments in areas such as weapons and tactics. The reason was that, to a certain extent, the war was some sort of “laboratory” for the trial of new systems. Furthermore, the conflict featured units from countries such as Italy and Germany, with which a clash in the near future was becoming a clear possibility. Although appeasement was still the majority view in Britain, as well as being official government policy, London was starting to prepare for an outbreak of hostilities. This included, among others, raising aircraft production volumes, preparations for civil (or passive) defence, and the setting up of underground facilities for the government (what would become known as the Churchill War Rooms). It was precisely the strategic bombing campaign that Mussolini’s forces based in Majorca unleashed against Catalan cities which attracted a great deal of attention by British observers. A number of both military officers and politicians and civil servants tried to learn as much as possible about the possible countermeasures and the bombing’s impact on civilian morale. This policy of observation, in search for “lessons learned”, would later be reinforced when some of the key participants in the defence of Barcelona moved to the United Kingdom. It was the case of Doctor Trueta, an expert in the treatment of war wounds who would end up being appointed professor at Oxford.

Although the employment of the bomber against the cities had long prophesized, and its likelihood increased thanks to the rapid technological progress in military aviation during the inter-war years, this was the first occasion in which the theory was implemented on a large scale. Many voices in France and Great Britain feared that this could become one of Berlin’s main weapons if war finally came, and this prevention could even have been one of the reasons why London and Paris found it so difficult to adapt a total war mindset immediately following their declaration of war on Germany after Berlin had failed to withdraw from Poland. This fear of aerial bombing was compounded by the possibility that not just conventional ordnance but also poison gas may be employed. Although it did not materialize, this lead Josep Tarradellas, in charge of war industries at the Catalan Government, to include in his plans the setting up of gas-producing factories, with the goal of deterrence. The possibility of Barcelona being attacked by Majorca-based planes had already been foreseen, in the first days of the war, by among others politician and journalist Rovira i Virgili, leading to an expedition whose failure opened the way to the Italian campaign.

The 1936-1939 war led to a long night for Catalonia, and one of the consequences was the hiding of her history, banned from the schools and the media. This included the air bombings and the efforts by civilians and authorities to mitigate their impact with the building of all sorts of air raid shelters. Some were little more than converted cellars and other underground spaces, whereas others were real feats of engineering, designed to accommodate sizeable numbers in relative comfort and safety. Even today, not everybody is aware of this story, in part also because of the local council’s unease and lack of interest over the previous three decades, which led to the loss of many of these shelters, very few of which were restored and opened to the public. Fortunately the current mayor’s approach is completely different, and he not only gave the green light to the monument to Sir Winston Churchill but was one of the speakers at its unveiling.

And of course, and this is one of the aspects of the historical connection we earlier mentioned, it was Churchill himself, shortly after becoming prime minister, after the Norwegian debacle had laid bare the need to choose between surrender and defiance, between waging the Phoney War and total war, who in his famous 18 June 1940 “Finest Hour” speech said “It is true that the German bomber force is superior in numbers to ours; but we have a very large bomber force also, which we shall use to strike at military targets in Germany without intermission. I do not at all underrate the severity of the ordeal which lies before us; but I believe our countrymen will show themselves capable of standing up to it, like the brave men of Barcelona, and will be able to stand up to it, and carry on in spite of it, at least as well as any other people in the world.”

Read more about the unveiling ceremony here.

His words made sure that what had happened to Barcelona would never be forgotten.

It is thus clear that just this appeal, this homage to the bravery of Catalan civilians under fire, would, by and in itself, more than justify the building of the memorial to Sir Winston Churchill in Barcelona.

The 15 December ceremony, however, should not be seen as the end of a road, but rather as its beginning. It is understandable that, after such a long battle, the temptation may be to simply relax and be happy with the monument. In spite of this, this memorial is just one of the elements in what must be a sustained strategy to make sure Churchill is well known, including both his life and deeds and his connection with the Catalan capital. Now that old political taboos are quickly going through the window, and that hope is replacing fear, it is the time to reinforce the teaching of history and make sure that one of its main characters is given the space he deserves.

Alex Calvo, a member of the Churchill Centre, is the head of the International Relations Department at European University (Barcelona Campus). He is currently doing an MA in Second World War Studies at the University of Birmingham.

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