Saturday, 5 September 2009

The MINISTRY OF TRUTH: D.J. Taylor - Orwell -The Life: Assault Guards during the May, 1937 events.

or the publicly funded, private rearguard armies of the Republic's Stalinist lackeys.

Part five of a series of six posts: Part One; Part Two; Part Three and Part Four.

On page 223 of Orwell - The Life D.J. Taylor writes:
Later that evening government troops from Valencia - crack assault guards, the pride of the Republican Army -

Incorrect. The Assault Guards, or Asaltos, or more popularly known as La Guardia de Asalto, were a public order force, under the control of the interior ministry, not an army unit under the control of the defence ministry.*

This is an important error which needs to be addressed because it undermines Orwell's point that police and public order units in the rearguard were better armed, equipped and provisioned than were frontline units.

Yes, the Asaltos did play an important role in the early streetfighting, especially in Barcelona, but they were a police and public order force who were later tasked with rounding up perceived dissidents. And yes, they were occasionally drafted into the frontline, but they could not, by any measure, be considered 'crack troops' nor 'the pride of the Republican Army'.

In Homage to Catalonia Orwell is very careful to (repeatedly) make the distinction that D.J. Taylor overlooks:

H.T.C. Chapter 10, page 137: "They were the Assault Guards, another formation similar to the Civil Guards and the Carabineros (i.e. a formation intended primarily for police work) ..."

H.T.C. Chapter 13, page 193: "The Assault Guards were a corps not intended primarily for the front, and many of them had not been under fire before. Down in Barcelona they were lords of the street, but up here [i.e. the frontline] they were quintos (rookies) ... "

H.T.C. Chapter 10, page 138: "They [the Assault Guards] were splendid troops, much the best I had seen in Spain, and, though I suppose they were in a sense 'the enemy', I could not help liking the look of them ... I had not known that the Republic possessed troops like these. It was not only that they were picked men physically, it was their weapons that most astonished me. All of them were armed with brand-new rifles ... vastly better than the dreadful old blunderbusses we had at the front. The Assault Guards had one sub-machine gun between ten men and an automatic pistol each; we at the front had approximately one machine-gun between fifty men, and as for pistols and revolvers, you could only procure them illegally. As a matter of fact, though I had not noticed it until now, it was the same everywhere. The Civil Guards and Carabineros, who were not intended for the front at all, were better armed and far better clad than ourselves. I suspect it is the same in all wars - always the same contrast between the sleek police in the rear and the ragged soldiers in the line."

The photo above shows members of the Security Corps, albeit in parade dress, and without their machine-guns and armoured cars, but gives an indication of the sight Orwell reported.

Orwell was correct to note " ... that they were picked men physically ... " The new formation had a minimum height requirement of 180 centimetres and an age requirement of between 22 and 32 years old, whereas the previous incarnation of the Assault Guard had a minimum height requirement of 170 centimetres.

Orwell's assessment can be backed up by the Republican commander General Vicente Rojo. Rojo bemoaned the fact that the Asaltos were much better equipped than the forces under his command, and noted that when called on to fight in the front line the Asaltos' incompetence and lack of experience had a disastrous impact on the morale of troops in the same sector. Hardly an endorsement for 'the pride of the Republican Army'.

Accurate, reliable, figures are impossible to obtain but it is generally agreed among Spanish historians that:

Between 50% and 55% of Civil Guards, 55% and 60% of Carabineros, and between 65% and 70% of Assault Guards remained loyal to the Popular Front government.

Technically, from early on in the war loyal elements of the Guardia Civil in the Republican zone were re-named The National Republican Guard (Guardia Nacional Republicana), but in practice people continued to call them the Guardia Civil. The conjuction of National and Republican in the title serves to confuse even more.

The Carabineros were what could be called frontier police - in effect armed customs men (what the Brits used to call the Reveners [corruption of revenue] or Duty Men.)
Here are two photos of Carabineros - the left in duty order, the right in ceremonial order:

The photos used for this post were taken from Sociedad Benéfica de Historiadores Aficionados y Creadores

The Assault Guards were first formed in 1932 by the Republican government of 1931.

The government did not wholly trust the loyalty of the Guardia Civil (for good reason given that Mola, codename: The Director, the co-ordinating conspirator behind the military rising, was Director-General of National Security during the final period of the Monarchy) and so created their own public order force, staffed by reliable elements. But, for fear of antagonising sections of the Right (as now) never got around to disbanding the Guardia Civil - a rallying call of Largo Caballero's Socialists.

It's important to bear in mind that the Civil Guard came under the Defence ministry, the Carabineros came under the control of the Treasury (Hacienda)**, while the Assault Guards came under the Interior Ministry.

So, in summary, at the outbreak of the uprising there were three distinct paramilitary formations each under the command of a different government department.***

When discussing the Assault Guards it's as well to have in mind that for Nationalist apologists it was a squad of Assault Guards who started the war - by assassinating right-winger Calvo Sotelo (in revenge for the murder of an Assault Guard officer by members of the Falange) on July 13th, 1936, four days before the uprising began.****

Of course the apologists would have it that the assassination was carried out on the orders of the Popular Front government.

In his Notes to the Text of Homage to Catalonia, in Orwell in Spain, Peter Davison makes an honest and sincere attempt to disentangle the confusion surrounding Orwell's uses of the terms Civil Guard and Assault Guard, but in doing so he confuses the issue even more by stating,
"... by the Spaniards referring indifferently to all these formations as 'la guardia' ..." [p.29].

Technically Peter Davison is wrong on this point, and the Spaniards he refers to were theoretically correct in referring to a singular formation.

At the time of the May events theoretically (as with the formation of the Popular Army) with the passing of a decree on December 27th, 1936, the Guardia Civil and the Guardia de Asaltos had been re-incorporated into a single entity -- the Security Corps, or, more accurately, Cuerpo de Seguridad y de Asalto.

This corps was divided into uniformed and plainclothes sections. Further, the uniformed section was divided into cavalry, motorized and infantry sections. This combined Civil Guard and Assault Guard formation had a unified command structure and a single uniform. The Security Corps came under the Interior ministry not the Defence ministry.

Interestingly, when the new formation was initially deployed theoretically the two former elements were mustered on the basis of two former Assault Guards to every one Civil Guard. This so the generally more loyal, and politically reliable, ex-Assault Guards could keep a close eye on the less trustworthy ex-Civil Guards. As with all decrees issued from central government implementation was patchy and depended on regional and local affiliations and local personalities.

I am only surmising, though my educated guess is based on thorough research, I contend that the formation Orwell refers to as "government troops from Valencia" were in fact members of the unified Security Corps, neither assault Guards nor Civil Guards but ex-Civil Guards and ex-Assault Guards all dandied up in brand new uniforms. SEE colour photo above.

Here's a photo of a squad of the Security Corps with their machine-guns:

As with the reformation of the armed forces the Soviet Union and Spanish Communists were very keen on pushing this reform through. The new formation gave their NKVD (secret police) operatives direct access to about 8000 plainsclothes agents - whom they quickly put to work as undercover informants and agent provocateurs.

It's a slippery analogy but the Security Corps could be likened to a hybrid formed of a full-time professional, fully armed, US National Guard and a section of the F.B.I. under the control of Homeland Security.

I can appreciate that the intricacies of rearguard formations mustered and deployed by the Republican government can confuse casual commentators, serious scholars and historians.
And, I can appreciate the temptation for scholars to shrug and say, "So what? What does it matter what these agencies of repression or public order were correctly called?"

Well, in response I would say that when considering the balance of power between competing statist factions, and when considering the Stalinists' objectives, as every serious scholar of the Civil War must, such knowledge does become important.

It is important to be aware that each of these well-funded, well-equipped, formations answered to a political boss - each of whom felt the need to defend their position, or advance their strategy, with the use of armed force as necessary.

The most sinister part of this jigsaw of Soviet consolidation was put in place on August 9th, 1937 with the integration of all intelligence and security services into the SIM - Servicio de Investigación Militar. This grouped all civil and military espionage and counter-espionage agencies under a single command - organised into six military and five civilian sections.

The task of Stalin's agents was to gain control of all three formations - Security Corps, SIM and the Carabineros - in order to confront those less well-armed, but much larger in number, proletarian elements which would deny them complete hegemony.

D.J. Taylor is the current Chair of the Orwell Trust

* The Assault Guards were commanded by Army officers, as were the Civil Guard. This was regular practice. Indeed, regular Army officers continued to command all police units (even traffic police) until reforms in the '80s.

** When Finance Minister Juan Negrín steadily reinforced the Carabineros during his term in office - ensuring he had a loyal armed cadre he could call on should he need it to counter resistance when, as per the Soviet plan, he was appointed Prime Minister. The Soviet Communists had approached him in December 1936 to obtain his agreement to be the next prime minister. This gave Negrín five months to build his army, with Soviet help obviously - being appointed Prime Minister on May, 17th, 1936, conveniently two weeks after the May streetfighting.

*** In Catalonia another paramilitary group, the Somatenes re-surfaced briefly. The Somatenes were an anti-organised labour protection force for landowners and factory owners - perhaps analogous to the notorious Pinkerton's Men in the United States. Also, I daresay former members of the Mossos d'Esquadra - a Catalan autonomous version of the Assault Guard, dissolved in 1934 - also dug out their old uniforms and weapons and joined the fray. And, there were likely similar Basque formations - though I have no information on this at the present time. And there were also the Militias of Rearguard Vigilance - an irregular force soon incorporated into the Assault Guard.

**** The assassins included a Captain of the Civil Guards.

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