Monday, November 20, 2023

A brief history of the Durruti Column

To mark the 87th anniversary of the death of José Buenaventura Durruti Dumange, below is a brief and rough history of the man's greatest accomplishment: the creation of the Durruti Column and that forces liberation and collectivization of much of Catalonia and Aragon.

 The Durruti Column originally numbered 2000 workers. It included military advisors such as Commander Pérez Farrás from the Catalan capital police, the Mossos d'Esquadra, and Guardia Civil lieutenant Pedro Garrido, and Artillery Sgt. José Manzana. The Column was made up of five Centurias, each led by CNT workers. 

    They brought along 12 artillery pieces organized into three batteries of four guns each. They brought 20 automobiles, 50 trucks (four for fuel, one for water, 15 for artillery, machine guns and ammo, and one with telegraph equipment), and three "tiznaos" (improvised armor constructed in collectivized factories.) They set off from Barcelona with a full parade and celebration on July 24, with the objective of liberating Zaragoza, the "second city of anarchism" and the capitol of the neighboring province, Aragon.

    In the first two days, the column rolled through Catalonia and advanced to Bujaraloz, a town in Aragon more than three-quarters of the distance between Barcelona and Zaragoza. Bujaraloz would serve as the column's headquarters for its entire existence. Along the way, the column liberated towns like Caspe, Cervera, Llieda, and Fraga, and added ten more centurias totaling 1000 volunteers from the area. They also captured 1000 rounds of ammo, 150 artillery shells, 10 have machine guns with 750 rounds of ammo, 15 trucks, 50 gallons of fuel, and 1000 pounds of food from the Nationalist forces.

    While their hearts were filled with hope by their early successes, already by then the column's official advisors were suggesting they slow down. These were not worker revolutionaries, they were military and police men who lacked the zeal and optimism required in the revolutionary moment, but possessed instead the education and experience of coordinated armed action. The column relented and waited for the other columns to catch up and secure the flanks and supply routes. The anarchists were busy while they waited, helping the peasants reorganize their towns and fields as collectives, establishing publishing efforts, and workeing to educate the rural people.

    After a week of waiting around, the other columns were still lagging behind. With each passing hour, the nationalists strengthened their defensive positions and reinforced the developing front-line. The Nationalists were already receiving help from the German Nazis and Italian Fascists, who provided planes for transporting the colonial Army of Africa from Morocco to southern Spain. These forces were much stronger and more experienced than the Peninsular army the workers defeated in Barcelona, Madrid, and other populous cities. It wouldn't be long before the Army of Africa arrived in Aragon, while Italian and German bombers took control of the skies.

    In the first weeks of August, the Durruti Column lent a hand to the columns in charge of the neighboring sectors, fighting north in Seitamo and liberating towns to the south along the Ebro, such as Gelsa, Pina de Ebro, Osera de Ebro, and Villafranca de Ebro. By August 13, they had also pushed west into the mountain town of Alfajarín, which would be their closest reach toward Zaragoza. From the hill by the old Alfajarín castle, they could see the street cars of Zaragoza. Their enemy made sure to keep the town's lights on all night to taunt the anarchists, who were once again advised strenuously by their advisors to hold up and wait for the front line to catch up to them.

    In the ensuing week, the Durruti Column took stock of their forces and supplies, and reorganized their column. They switched from 10-member groups to 25-member groups. The column now totaled 6000 militia members in 9 Agrupaciones and 45 Centurias. They had 7 or so groups of "Shock forces" totaling around 225 fighters. They organized their Agrupaciones to cover three sectors of the Aragon front. They organized a bakery, a mechanics' section, and a medical section of two doctors and a handful of nurses.

    The column suffered severe supply shortages. They only had 3000 rifles for the 6000 fighters. They only had 16 heavy machine guns and 9 mortars, and the same 12 cannons they left Barcelona with. They had 30 automobiles and 80 trucks, and 10 tiznaos. They turned one truck into a mobile printing press, from which they published their official bulletin, El Frente. Another truck they utilized as a mobile transmitter to blast revolutionary arguments across the front line to encourage soldiers to desert.

    For all of their efforts and optimism, this was the high-water-mark of the Durruti Column. They fought fierce battles throughout September and October, but could not advance further. Their supply issues only got worse. They struggled to maintain their positions against a better armed, organized, and trained professional enemy. 

    In November, Durruti was called to Madrid, which was under a massive siege from the Army of Africa. Durruti arrived in mid-November with the best of the column's centurias. They stood in the breech against the Nationalist thrust in the University City of Madrid, absorbing the blow of the fascist attack. Despite the conditions and a lack of relief or reinforcement from the Republican command, they stopped the Nationalist advance in University City, establishing the frontline there which would remain static for the remaining two and a half years the war. They lost a few buildings and most of the men they had arrived with, but saved Madrid.

    Durruti never returned from Madrid to continue on the push to Zaragoza. He was struck by a bullet on November 19 a few blocks from the front line, and died in the hospital on November 20th, another son of the people lost in the fight for freedom. 

 You may find photos of my Durruti Column miniature forces here:

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