Forced labour of Republican prisoners on the Val de Zafan railway line
Between 1938 and 1942, over 2,700 prisoners of war from the Republican forces were divided into five work battalions and forced to work as slaves of Franco’s regime on the section of the Val de Zafan railway line being built between Alcanyis and Tortosa. Xerta was a key location as the site where many prisoners were kept and much of the work carried out.
The groups, known as ‘worker battalions’ (BBTT), were made up of ex-fighters from the People’s Army of the Spanish Republic who had not undergone a judicial trial but were classified as either ‘disaffected and hostile’ or ‘possibly disaffected’ with the new dictatorial regime. From 1940 onwards these groups were reorganized and called ‘disciplinary battalions of worker soldiers’ (BDST). They consisted of prisoners of war, ex-fighters who had finished their military service under the Republican army and were classified as ‘hostile’, as well as deserters from Franco’s army. In both cases, the prisoners were housed in concentration camps, classified, and distributed accordingly into different punishment units.
The first of these Francoist slaves were sent to work on the railway line under construction in the spring of 1938 (BBTT 66 and BBTT 68), following Franco’s nationalist forces’ conquest of the right bank of the River Ebro. The principal task of the forced labour was to speed up the process of laying the new tracks. By mid-June they had completed the work as far as the Pinell de Brai station (in the Terra Alta region). Later, as they moved on to work further downstream in the Baix Ebre region, the activity was halted due to artillery fire from the Republican forces on the left bank. During the Battle of the Ebro, having the line open as far as Bot facilitated the arrival of supplies and soldiers for Franco’s forces.
Work started again towards the end of 1938 as more prisoners were brought to carry out forced labour. Their main tasks involved laying down the ballast for the line between Valljunquera and Pinell de Brai, which also meant quarries needed to be dug out at several nearby sites under tough working conditions, laying the rails between Pinell de Brai and Aldover, and rebuilding infrastructure such as viaducts damaged during the fighting.
Railway line under construction at Xerta, covered with snow. Prisoners in the middle of the photo. Photo: Roger Aviñó.
Document relating to delivery of a package of clothes from Barcelona to Tortosa station for the prisoners of BDST 18 in 1940. Image: Xerta town archives.
Document relating to the BDST 18 battalion being housed in a building in Xerta, 1941. Image: Roger Aviñó.
Advert for a football match with the workers battalion in Xerta in May 1940, published in Diario Español de Tarragona newspaper. Image: Tarragona newspaper archives library.
Xerta, focal point of Franco’s slave labour
As the work on the railway gradually moved down the valley, the command centre was set up at Xerta where most prisoners were located. Part of the BBTT 69, BBTT 163 and BDST 18 groups worked in and around Xerta up until 1942. The warehouses belonging to the old cooperative located beside the railway were used as quarters for the prisoners. Further north, temporary camps were also set up outside the village in the Les Valls and Xalamera areas.
The presence of such a large contingent of prisoners in a small village like Xerta did not go unnoticed. For example, 1,307 prisoners carrying out forced labour were housed in the village in 1940. The work was hard and dangerous, requiring a lot of physical effort, and always outdoors whatever the weather. There were many accidents, and prisoners had little rest and a poor diet. There experienced frequent physical punishments, constant ideological drilling, and a permanent sensation of exploited slavery.
The Francoist-run local council collected information regarding the prisoners for other public administrations and could request the prisoners’ free labour when they deemed it necessary to help in emergencies. For instance, in October 1940, members of one of the work battalions were sent to repair damage caused in the village by floods. On another occasion, they carried out restoration work on the Sant Zeno chapel in Carrer Major street.
Living in the area for so long led to friendly relationships between many of the prisoners and local villagers. A football team known as ‘Batallón de Trabajadores de Cherta’ (Xerta workers’ battalion) made up of locals and prisoners played friendly matches against other teams from the area and was the embryo for the village team to return after its absence during the Civil War. Various romantic relationships came about between prisoners and soldiers and women from the village.
Xerta football team made up of Republican prisoners and locals, 1940. Photo: Antoni Cid.
Group of prisoners from BDST 18 beside the railway in Xerta. José Gómez Márquez is the first on the right. Photo: Arcángel Bedmar collection.