Famed 9th Company of the Leclerc Division Loses Its Last Spanish Veteran

June 2, 2020

“La Nueve” company in England prior to shipping out to France. Rafael Gómez is standing in the third row from the bottom, the sixth soldier from the right.

Recognition of the presence of Spanish Loyalists in the French Army over the last 15 years has unfortunately led to the propagation of numerous myths.

Rafael Gómez-Nieto (1921-2020), the last representative of a crusty and rare group of World War II veterans—Spanish Loyalists who served in the French Second Armored Division—died on March 31 near Strasbourg, France, victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. Until very recently he was a healthy widower and grandfather, who lived alone, drove his own car, and was looking forward to turning 100. His family has had the unprecedented honor of receiving condolences from both Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, and Felipe VI, King of Spain.

Born in the province of Almería, Andalusia, he grew up in Cadiz, Madrid and then Barcelona, subject to postings of his Army officer father, Rafael Gómez-Cañadas, who would remain loyal to the democratic government during the Civil War. At the age of 17, the younger Rafael Gómez was called up in Barcelona to fight on the Ebro as part of the so-called Baby Bottle conscripts. He eventually followed the Retirada to the border in February 1939 and was held in the French concentration camp of Argelès sur Mer. Fortunately, an uncle residing in Oran, Algeria wrote a letter vouching for and offering a home to “Rafael Gómez” and as the French authorities were ill-acquainted with the Spanish tradition of two surnames that one letter freed both father and son and got them to North Africa.

In Oran, the young Rafael became a cobbler’s apprentice and lived with his family. This arrangement allowed him to avoid the hardships other Loyalist exiles endured in North Africa, such as the Vichy hard labor camps of the pharaonic and ultimately unfinished Trans-Saharian Railroad or stints in the French Foreign Legion. In June 1943 he enlisted in the Free French Corps franc d’Afrique and later claimed his mother smashed a glass on the floor out of rage upon hearing the news. There he was united with other antifascist Spaniards, many of whom had fought in the Tunisian campaign against Rommel. These men then transferred to the nascent French Second Armored Division of General Leclerc.

As a half-track driver in the division’s armored infantry Régiment de Marche del Tchad, Gomez-Nieto served in the first platoon of the famous 9th company, la Nueve, the unit with the highest concentration of Spanish Loyalist veterans of the entire division. At the wheel of the half-track painted with the name Guernica, and then the Don Quichotte II, he survived the campaign in France without a scratch (Normandy, Paris, the Vosges, Strasbourg, Alsace, the Colmar Pocket), although he was evacuated with frozen feet during the arctic winter of 1945, returning to his unit in time for the final rush into Germany and Austria which led the Spanish veterans to celebrate V-E Day in Berchtesgaden. Discharged in the summer of 1945, he returned to Algeria where he married, but in 1958 as war tore through the country, Gómez-Nieto put his in-laws’ family Alsatian roots to good use and settled near Strasbourg, in Lingolsheim, a town he had participated in liberating some 13 years earlier, finding employment as a mechanic in a nearby Citroën automobile factory.

Curiously, the honor of the last survivor is not a chosen role, but rather a status thrust upon even a minor protagonist of any significant historical event by means of excellent genes, a healthy lifestyle or just good luck. Prior to receiving the coveted French Legion of Honor in 2015, Rafael Gómez faithfully attended commemoration ceremonies but was reserved, even shy, shunned interviews, and remained in the background.

Ironically, Rafael Gómez, the last veteran of the Nueve, did not take part in the unit’s most famous exploit, the perilous mission into Paris on the evening of August 24, 1944 led by Captain Dronne. In fact, upon receiving orders to dash into the capital and link up with the Resistance, the captain was unable to disengage his first platoon which was then heavily committed in action nearby. Dronne’s column thus headed to its rendezvous with history with fewer than five half-tracks of the first platoon, including the Guernica driven by Gómez. The next morning, the forty hapless soldiers were hastily added to the rear of the division convoy. In yet another bizarre quirk of fate, unlike Dronne’s column, which against all odds, entered Paris the night before without firing a shot, the Spanish platoon at the rearguard had to battle its way into the capital. German diehards had succeeded in cutting off the last few vehicles at the Porte d’Orléans and a brief firefight was necessary to open the way into Paris. The platoon was not reunited with its comrades until the next day during preparations for De Gaulle’s victory parade down the Champs Elysées.

While unquestionably deserved, recognition of the presence of Spanish Loyalists in the French Army over the last 15 years has unfortunately led to the propagation of numerous myths, and many digital sources paint a distorted picture of la Nueve. It is therefore not difficult to encounter outlandish claims: one is almost forced to conclude that the thousands of German soldiers in the Paris garrison were defeated by one brave band of 100 Spanish antifascists, or that the only infantry company of the entire Leclerc Division worth its salt was la Nueve.

To be sure, Rafael Gómez-Nieto was a discreet veteran who did not overstate his personal contribution in the war against Nazism as evidenced by his contribution to the recent documentary film, “Rafael Gómez, el andaluz que liberó Paris” (by Pedro Calleja, 2019 visible online at www.canalsur.es). Let us hope that as time and passions pass, more credible research will tell the whole story of la Nueve, because here, as is often the case, the truth is even more tantalizing than fiction.

Robert S. Coale is Professor of Hispanic Studies at the Université de Rouen-Normandie in France and a member of the Board of ALBA. For more on Spanish Loyalists of the Leclerc Division and their role in the Liberation of Paris see “Setting the Record Straight: The Liberation of Paris, August 25, 1944” in the September 2019 edition of The Volunteer.